Travels with Benoit: Promos and production prompt crisscrossing summer


Photo: Beacon Archives

WLP Professor Benoit Denizet-Lewis.

Benoit Denizet-Lewis’ office at Emerson is sparsely decorated except for an abstract art piece, a Marilyn Monroe print, and his framed New York Times Magazine cover stories, which he often gazed at while fashioning thoughts and recalling past memories.

A bestselling nonfiction writer, Denizet-Lewis’ honest and inquisitive pieces about weighty issues like identity, religion, and addiction have recently propelled him to national renown.

He currently works as an assistant professor in the writing, literature, and publishing department, but spent the summer traversing the country, promoting his most recent book and producing a film based on an article he wrote.

This 2011 New York Times Magazine profile, titled “My Ex-Gay Friend,” tells the story of how his friend, Michael, determined he was no longer gay and grew to despise and criticize homosexuality through a new-founded fundamentalist Christian outlook.

Over the summer, Denizet-Lewis, 39, wrapped up production on Michael, a cinematic adaptation of his piece.

James Franco, whom Denizet-Lewis had previously profiled for an Advocate cover story, had emailed him to express interest in turning the article into a film. Soon afterward, director Justin Kelly wrote a script and assembled a cast that includes Zachary Quinto, Emma Roberts, and Daryl Hannah.

Franco, in addition to producing the movie with Denizet-Lewis, plays the lead role of Michael.

“The movie wouldn’t have happened without James’ [Franco] interest,” he said. “Michael is a fascinating, complicated, maddening person. I think that James was interested in telling his story in all its weirdness and complexity.”

Although Denizet-Lewis will be appearing as a random extra, he said Blake Lee will be portraying him in the movie for a few scenes and hopes Michael will be released by next summer or fall.

In addition to working on his first ever movie set, Denizet-Lewis toured the country this summer to promote his new book.

Travels With Casey, published in July, is Denizet-Lewis’ third publication. It landed a spot on the New York Times Bestseller List its first week and won him the title of “hot summer author” by USA Today.

The book documents Denizet-Lewis’ four-month-long road trip, accompanied by his dog, and studies the different types of bonds people share with their furry companions.

Fascinated by both dog lovers and canine culture, Denizet-Lewis said he tried to tell a comprehensive story about the role of these animals in contempo-

rary American life.
“I was really intent on not just focus-

ing on the common narrative of dogs as kids and family members…but on stray dogs, feral dogs, the dogs of homeless people, the kinds of dogs we don’t really see or talk about or think about so much,” he said.

The similarly titled Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck does have a correlation with Travels With Casey. Denizet-Lewis summed up the link between the two by saying that he was trying to tell the story of American dogs while Steinbeck was trying to tell the story of America’s soul.

While Travels With Casey differs from his first two books, in that it generally deals with less serious and heavy issues, Denizet-Lewis stresses that it is not a “lighthearted romp.”

In his effort to cover as many different types of dogs as possible, Denizet-Lewis spent time in a euthanasia room, which he said was the most challenging part of his journey.

“[I thought] if I’m going to write a story about dogs in America, there’s still hundreds of thousands of dogs who get euthanized in this country, so I have to see it,” he said. “My instinct was to open all their cages and let them make a run forit.”

Another tough yet rewarding time for Denizet-Lewis was his trip with Stray Rescue founder Randy Grim to East St. Louis, which he described as “the most dangerous neighborhood in America.”

“Rescuing dogs from East St. Louis was hard, but it was also incredibly inspiring and fun because we were able to save so many dogs,” he said. “That was probably the most meaningful time I had on the trip.”

Denizet-Lewis didn’t just return home with his own dog, but also brought along another dog, Rezzy, whom he rescued from a Navajo reservation in northern Arizona. He describes Rezzy as being “an incredibly loving and affectionate dog” and said she and Casey get along nicely.

Denizet-Lewis said after the busiest summer of his life, he is happy to be back teaching.

Having previously taught magazine and nonfiction writing at Northeastern, Tufts, and The College of Wooster, where he served as Writer-in-Residence, he came to Emerson in the fall of 2013.

While three of the courses he teaches deal with magazine writing and pub-

lishing, he also currently teaches a class called Writing About Subcultures.

When asked for a piece of advice he would lend his students as they venture out into the job market to start their writing careers, Denizet-Lewis couldn’t choose just one.

“You have to read. You have to want it,” he said. “You have to work so hard… I’m surprised sometimes when there are young journalists or publishing students, especially in this climate, who don’t understand how hard you have to work to make it and be successful.”

As a satisfying end to his summer, Denizet-Lewis was awarded a spot on the Advocate’s “50 Most Influential LGBT People in Media” list in September. Since his work has reached so many people, he said he recognizes that an important duty comes along with this honor.

“There is, unfortunately, no way to make everyone in the LGBT community happy when covering LGBT issues,” he said. “The responsibility I feel is to write with honesty, empathy, and nuance about our lives.”