What is love?

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“I have three very quick questions—no right or wrong,” he starts off.

“Okay,” I say, feeling a little blindsided. This is not how most of my interviews start out.

The Harbour Towers Hotel Lobby, in downtown Victoria, B.C., was quiet, as expected on a Monday morning. The over-stuffed chair felt familiar as I set up my voice recorder and opened my laptop to my questions list. I’d asked to meet with Mr. Greene so I could write a story about the incarceration of some Russian teens who read aloud his story “The Blue Door” on the steps of the St. Petersburg Children’s Library in Russia. Time permitting, I was also hoping to ask Mr. Greene about his books, for a culture story. That all changed when Mr. Greene stepped out from the elevator. I saw a certain look in his eye. He grabbed a pen and paper from the front desk. “What are you taking at UVic?” he asked.

“Creative writing,” I said, getting up from my chair.

“Perfect. Then we are going to start off this interview a little differently.” He asked the receptionist if we could interview in the empty bar. It was closed, at that hour, and dead silent. Uprooted from my established interview location, I was already feeling a little thrown. His purple golf shirt, worn over a grey cotton long-sleeved tee, looked royal against his ebony skin. My unkempt beard was not helping sell me as a professional.

I sit on the edge of my barstool. Aren’t I supposed to be asking the questions? The empty bar lets in the morning light, and I’m anxious. Robert Joseph Greene, Canada’s only renowned male romance writer, sits in front of me. He’s just told me that 90 per cent of people have no idea what love is, and that this morning he’s going to explain to me, exactly, just what love is. He looks at me with a confident smile and says, “This is the greatest gift I can give to you.“

Meet Mr. Greene

Robert Joseph Greene has been writing gay romance fiction for a number of years and has seven published books. One of the books he is most recognized for is Gay Icon Classics of The World (2011). The book presents love stories from various cultures that read like the classic fables on which they are based.

His story “The Soiled Loin Cloth” is a tale of two African boys that express feelings for one another and are run out of town. Greene wrote the story after meeting a girl from the Ivory Coast. “I told her I was gay, and she never knew gay people,” says Greene. He continues, “And we talked about it, and then she said, ‘I remember my Grandmother told me about two boys in her village that got ran out of the village for kissing,’ and that’s how I wrote ‘The Soiled Loin Cloth.’ I take a little bit of something and I extrapolate the story.”

“The Blue Door” is a short romance Greene wrote about a Russian prince and his male archery instructor. Greene had learned from some Russian exchange students that in Russia, the colour blue is associated with being gay. When he asked them why, they said there wasn’t a reason. So Greene created a story to explain the phenomenon. “The Blue Door” has since been translated into Russian and, in January 2012, was read on the steps of a library in St. Petersburg, by the same group of students Greene met years before. This all happened in the midst of Russia passing its gay propaganda laws, leading to death threats directed at Greene from Russian civilians, and also greater popularity for his stories.

His collection of short stories in Crossovers: Straight Men—Gay Encounters takes on an even more forward-thinking approach. The stories feature straight men experimenting with their sexuality. The book promotes a healthy and progressive idea that men do not need to look at their sexuality as black and white—an idea that has not made it into the mainstream yet.

The differences between Greene’s romance novels and a basic Harlequin novel are apparent. As Greene puts it, “Harlequin will play to their audience. There will always be this ‘knight in shining armor,’ and this ‘happily ever after.’” With real romance novels, Greene states that, “there is a realism, and an idealism that someone holds true to their true self, and I think that’s what’s more important.” This sense of realism comes through in Greene’s writing. His stories don’t always end with the hero riding off into the sunset, and they aren’t about a prince and a princess. They don’t allow themselves to be constricted by time, place, ethicity, or sexual orientation. It’s for these reasons I really feel that, more than anyone else I’ve ever met, this man knows what real love is all about.

The test

His three questions were going to teach me what love really was. My computer had my unused question list on its screen. Greene had told me there were no right or wrong answers. I tried to clear my mind.

“What is the opposite of love?” asks Greene.

“Hate,” I say, with very little conviction. I hate to spoil it, but this seems to be the wrong answer. Greene doesn’t say anything, but instead proceeds with his questions.

“What is the greatest test of love?” he continues.

“Commitment.” This answer I am quite proud of. The third question can now be approached with much more confidence.

“What is love?” Greene asks finally.

“Love is,” I pause, and the confidence fades, “an undying passion and joy,” my train of thought wavers in my inexperience, “you get from spending time with someone.”

Greene continues without acknowledging my corny, unconfident answer.

I’ve always been corny. I’ve always been a romantic. I sometimes feel that in order for me to be romantic, corniness is a necessity. I had my first “girlfriend” in Grade 1. It was a drawn-out affair, of course. We “dated” for two days. Having matured quite a bit since then, I’ve now been in a relationship for over a year. Loving her has always been easy, but I have never considered long-term relationships to be effortless. After being told that 90 per cent of people have no idea what love is, and stumbling through Greene’s questions, I begin to get worried—what if I really don’t have any idea what love is all about?

“Let’s list some emotions,” says Greene. Happiness, excitement, jealousy, anger . . . I’m good at this task.

“Hate?” asks Greene.

“Yeah,” I say.

“How about love?”

“Yeah,” I say, blindly stumbling into his trap. Greene grins.

Many of us who have been in or are in relationships are aware that you can feel excitement while in love, and you can feel jealousy while in love. You can be happy, angry, hateful, and then back to happy in the span of an evening while in love. “If love is a culmination of all these emotions, then is love an emotion?” continues Greene. My face flushes into a foolish “a-ha moment” look, and Greene smiles back at me. This is why Greene is a romance writer, I guess. He wants to teach others about love.

“The opposite of love, then, is indifference,” Greene goes on. Not hate as had I originally thought. Emotions are based on inputs. If you see a masked man produce a gun in front of you (a visual input), you’re scared. If you want to be happy, then you could, for example, ride a bike (physical input). People mistakenly think that they want love, but as Greene points out, love is not necessarily an emotion. People make the mistake of thinking that if they receive input like a great date, hot sex, or attention from a crush, then that input will satisfy their need for love. However, as Greene points out, love is not an emotion. If people think it works on input alone (sexual reference not intended), it will ultimately make the relationship unstable.

“The number one question I ask people,” says Greene, “is why do you love that person? Number one answer? ‘I love them because they make me feel good’ . . . So then I ask them, ‘The minute they stop making you feel good, do you stop loving them?’”

Questioning love

But what about those wondering, “Is this love?” To this, Greene answers, “That question will always be there, because we are humans and we have choice. We have choice to remain or choice to go, and the problem is that a collective few said ‘Okay, choice is not fair. So we have to put laws around choice, we have to make it marriage, and we have to make it to—protect.’ Well, what are you protecting? You know? Protecting means that you have people on one side that want something out of this, it’s not the people on this side that give something out of it. If I’m in a relationship with someone and they want to leave, I’m like, ‘I will not hold you back.’ ‘Cause who wants to be with someone who doesn’t want to be with you? You can’t force someone to love you.”

“What happens is, in your situation, you’re like, ‘Is this love?’” Greene continues. “There’s a human insecurity back here,” he says, motioning to back of his brain, “that measures, and you have to condition yourself not to measure, you know? ‘She didn’t make me breakfast this morning,’ or, ‘She didn’t give me a kiss goodbye,’ or something. There is no measurement here. There’s just flow, and you just go with the flow, wherever it is. It might be she’s sick in bed with the flu, and you’re taking care of her for a weekend, even though you had concert tickets to whatever, but you know this is more important, you know? It’s keeping that flow in energy. “

“You could go through the whole list,” said Green, “’I love her cause she has big tits,’ ‘I love him cause he has a big dick,’ ‘I love him because he gave me children, this house.’ These are ‘I want’ statements, and what we know about that is that that’s going to make love unstable.” It’s hard not to want love when you’re a romantic at heart. It’s equally hard to force love when you aren’t.

With half of marriages ending in divorce, and the fact that everybody and their grandmother knows that’s the case, it surprises me that everyone assumes they need to fit into traditional roles of husband and wife. I think sexuality should be questioned and no one should be judged on not knowing what he or she wants. The sooner we all understand love, and ourselves, the better. So then, what exactly is love?

Love is…

“The last question is what actually is love?” Greene carries on. “It’s not a very very difficult question.” He stops and grabs a pen and a blank sheet in front of him and writes, Love is what you are willing to do for someone else. “That’s all it is,” he says, “’cause that’s all you can control.”

What you are willing to do for someone else. It was the climax of the interview; I took a moment to digest it. Greene dropped the pen on the table and sat back in his barstool observing my reaction. I thought back to my own relationship. I would do anything for her. I sat on that bar stool in that empty bar by the harbour, and I knew that for a fact.

With as much restraint as I can muster, I embarrassingly gush to Canada’s only renowned male romance writer about my own relationship. I tell him of my previous doubts about what love was, and I also tell him of the things I’ve done for her and how much I enjoyed doing them. I tell him with confidence that I now know it is love.

“The expressive state of love is a very nice one,” says Greene, “because it allows you to be you.”

“My first love really taught me a lot about love,” confessed Greene. “I was young. Mr. Partier and stuff like that. And the first thing you realize when you’re in love is, ‘I’m so lonely!’” Greene went on to explain how everything he was doing before, like the partying, seemed so hollow after he fell in love.

“He used to write me poetry and leave it on my voice mail for me before I got home from work, just really cute little romantic things like that. It really grows in you; ‘cause I was working and he lived in Long Beach, California, which was an hour and a half away, so we could only see each other on weekends. I would make this little storyline called ‘George’ which was [about] a monkey. I remember once we had this huge fight on Sunday night. We were swearing at each other, then I was driving home all mad, and I just remember on Monday I was still doing the storyboard for George. This is where you realize you’re in love.”

I’m sure there are some who will read this and doubt this man’s theories on love. And I hope there are some that will feel as inspired as I did. I have been interviewing people for the better part of a year. I thought I had an understanding of how people worked, but true knowledge is knowing that you know nothing, right? I think Socrates said that. Regardless, I didn’t walk into the interview expecting a love lesson. What I think it really boils down to is that everyone needs to understand themselves better and know their personal preferences in terms of relationships, before assuming they should just fit into the ideas that society has concerning love. But, as Robert Joseph Greene says, “What do I know? I’m just a lowly romance writer.”

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