Support Big Gay Fiction Podcast on PatreonJeff & Will remind everyone that this month’s Big Gay Fiction Book Club selection is Running Lines  by Jeris Jean. The Book Club episode is coming up on Thursday, September 30. In addition, they also share that a previous Book Club selection, Clare London’s Romancing the Rough Diamond, is now available in audiobook narrated by Joel Leslie.

In a change from our usual interviews with fiction authors, we welcome American Ballet Theatre principal dancer James Whiteside to discuss Center Center, his recently released memoir. James is a dancer, musician, drag performer and has now added author and audiobook narrator to his credits. He talks with us about choosing which of his life experiences to explore and how he used writing to creatively present them.

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Show Notes

Here are the things we talk about in this episode. Please note, these links include affiliate links for which we may make a small commission at no extra cost to you should you make a purchase. These links are current at the time the episode premieres, however links are subject to change.


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Will: Coming up on this episode, we’re getting real with American Ballet Theater principal dancer James Whiteside. He’s going to be joining us and talking about his new memoir “Center Center.”

Jeff: Welcome to episode 332 of the Big Gay Fiction Podcast, the show for avid readers and passionate fans of gay romance fiction. I’m Jeff, and with me as always is my co-host and husband, Will.

Will: Hello, rainbow romance readers. We are so glad that you could join us for another episode of the show.

Before we get to this week’s interview, I want to remind everyone that this month’s book club pick is “Running Lines” by Jeris Jean. Jeff. And I really love this terrific Hollywood romance, and we think you will too. The book club episode is going to be dropping on September 30th, the last day of the month. So there is still plenty of time to give this new author and this new series a try.

I also want to quickly mention that a previous book club pick, “Romancing the Rough Diamond,” which we featured last May, is now available in audiobook.

I’m going to continue to recommend all the books in this particular series. I loved every single one of them. There’s “Romancing the Rough Diamond, “Romancing the Undercover Millionaire,” ” Romancing the Ugly Duckling,” and “Romancing the Wrong Twin.” As you might be able to guess from those titles, these are real trope-heavy, sweet and sexy romances written in that distinctive Clare London style, where nice guys find themselves in utterly ridiculous situations. And as they try to extricate themselves romantic hilarity ensues.

“Romancing the Rough Diamond” is narrated by a friend of the podcast Joel Leslie. If you haven’t yet sampled these romance classics by Clare London, we hope that you’ll give them a try.

Jeff: I’ve actually been thinking about going back to “Romancing the Rough Diamond” because I want to hear Joel do that book. I just think he’s going to be so good at it. He and Clare London already are a match made in heaven. This is not the first book he’s done with her. I got to figure out how to get that into my reading schedule sooner than later.

Will: Yeah, Like I said, all the books in the series are true gems and if you need a feel good pick me up this series will definitely do the trick.

Jeff: So this week we’ve got a little different interview than usual. We mentioned recently that it’s been a summer of memoir for us, and we could not pass up the chance to talk to James Whiteside when the opportunity presented itself. Here on the show, we are always talking about our theater experiences, including trips to see American Ballet Theatre, so this interview is a great coming together of our love of books, our love of dance, of theater, and talking to writers and creatives.

We’ve seen James perform a number of times and have been a fan for quite a while. And as we discussed when we reviewed “Center Center” back in episode 330, we really enjoyed reading about his life. We hope you enjoy our discussion with James as we find out how he chose the stories he wanted to tell for this memoir and how he balanced the happy, sad, and funny into a wonderfully compelling read.

James Whiteside Interview

Jeff: James, welcome to the podcast. It is really amazing to have you here.

James: I am so happy to be here. Thank you so much for having me.

Jeff: It’s a wonderful intersection of the things that we talk about here on the podcast, even though you haven’t written fiction.

James: Well, you know, there might be some elements of fiction in the book, some fantasy elements. You know.

Jeff: And we’ll be talking about your take on a musical as we go through some of this. So, but your memoir, your very first book “Center Center,” just released in mid August. Tell everybody about this book as we can see here. That actually carries this tagline “a funny, sexy, sad, almost memoir of a boy in ballet.”

James: Okay, this book has been 37 years in the making and I wanted it to be a sort of full experience, not just ballet, cause I’m a principal dancer with American Ballet Theater. I don’t just want it to be about ballet. I wanted it to be sort of a human experience. You know, the coming out story, the dating, the friendships, the family, the losses, you know, everything rolled into, a strange and interesting little package.

Jeff: It’s interesting you put it that way because not only are there your stories, there are some amazing illustrations in here too, that just bring it more to life. How did the illustrations come to be a part of it?

James: I’ve always known, I wanted to write a book and then I actually read a book called “Boy” by Roald Dahl with beautiful illustrations. The book is a collection of stories from his childhood. It’s like about school and its friends and blah, blah, blah, whatever. And the illustrations are so fabulous. And I thought to myself, if I’m going to write something, I need really evocative, strange illustrations. I like the sort of almost grotesque nature of the illustrations and things like “Alice and Wonderland” and the Roald Dahl books.

So I had a friend of a friend and his name is Teddy O’Connor and he’s an illustrator and a animator for “Rick and Morty,” which is an amazing adult comedy show on Adult Swim. And I said, I really want you to do this. Like I know you’re super busy doing “Rick and Morty,” and “Solar Opposites” for Hulu. And please, please, please, please do the illustrations for my book. I know you’ll crush it.

And the publisher was like, oh, you have to use in house illustrators. And I was like, no, absolutely not. I’m going to use Teddy, whether you like it or not. And Teddy finally agreed and just came up with the most grotesque, fantastic, beautiful illustrations for the book.

Jeff: They are so amazing how they connect to the text. And for me, they reminded me of like, Edward Gorey illustrations because of the very, the pen and ink kind of nature of them a little bit really nice additions there. So I’m glad you fought for him to get in there and do those.

You called this an almost memoir. Why the almost?

I am not an old man. I am not, you know, close to death, hopefully. You never know. Yolo and all that. And I wanted it to have elements of fantasy in it, and different ways of telling my story. So each chapter has like a little something extra, and that could be in the form of like, You know, a play or a sort of time warpy, time jumpy kind of thing going on, or even just complete nonsense.

Like there are, there are moments in which I just, I, I just prattle on about, you know, things like the back of a, a Falcon porn DVD, or like VHS from 1997, you know? And they’re all just little glimpses into my imagination, I suppose.

So there’s a little, maybe fiction-y element that wanders through here a little bit, but all rooted in your life.

James: Yes, absolutely.

Jeff: And there’s such an array of stories, I mean, you talk about your early ballet times and how you became a principal dancer at ABT. There’s a chapter on the pets that you’ve had, details on your parents, your boyfriends as you kind of mentioned. An airline experience from hell that I like both loved and was horrified by. What was your process to pick the stories from your life to build the narrative of the book.

James: I knew I wanted the book to be a non-chronological collection of essays. So I essentially just looked at all the things I’ve done and things I’ve experienced and picked out experiences that would translate well to like a cute little story basically. Like it ranges from, the death of my mother to like a really shitty travel experience. Pardon my French. So I just wanted to explore things that I thought would translate well.

Jeff: I always ask fiction writers what their favorite scene was to write. This is a very personal book, and so this could be like the worst, most unfair question ever. But is there something in here that really stands out as like a favorite scene or moment?

James: I have two. One is perhaps the scene of the death of my mother. And another is in the final chapter, the scene in which… How explicit can I get here?

Jeff: Extremely. Be as explicit as you want.

James: In the last chapter there’s a scene in which, you know, in my early twenties, my friends and I all went to the west coast for a little, you know, friend trip.

And we end up, partying, et cetera, et cetera. And I painted a scene in which my friend and I were in a studio apartment, watching our other friends have sex with this guy while we were eating Taco Bell, just like giggling at them. And that was really amusing for me to write about.

Jeff: And I think what you just talked about there really shows the true range of the stories that within a few pages, you’re talking about this profound moment of the death of your mother and where you were in your life at that moment, and that’s one of those moments where it really like clenched my heart because of what you went through there.

But then there’s like this other pretty ridiculous moment happening, you know, towards the end of the book. How did you decide the order in which to organize these very individual, very different essays.

James: Yeah. It’s. It felt a lot like I had made an album of music and was trying to figure out the order of the songs. And the most important thing for me was to have the emotions flow properly. So I didn’t want it to be funny, funny, funny, sad, sad, funny, funny, absurd, absurd, you know? Like I wanted it to be like a natural flow from emotional atmosphere to emotional atmosphere. And I worked really hard with my editor Gretchen on the order, which in my opinion really should feel like the best playlist you can imagine.

Jeff: I like how you connect that because you’ve also got your side as a musician where you’re creating music. And so that piece of your creativity flows back over to the book.

James: It’s all the same world. You know, it’s all this art as expression business. It’s all part of the same brain.

Jeff: What are the things that really struck me here is some of the time and attention that you gave to body image and how you talk about that you don’t have a ballet body and what is considered a typical ballet body and how you turn that into at least what to me, read like is an advantage for you and you even kind of adopted RuPaul’s famous line around that I really thought this was powerful. What do you hope readers pull away from that section as we’re such a body obsessed culture?

James: I viewed myself as not having a suitable ballet body, which I know now is complete and utter nonsense. I had gotten, it into my head that my knees were too bent and my feet were too flat. My hips were turned in. You know, all these little nonsense things crept into my psyche and sort of hindered my confidence. So as I got older and I learned more about what it is to be an artist and what actually matters and how it’s the uniqueness of a person that makes you a memorable artist? I was like, oh, I absolutely have a suitable ballet body. I’m being insane. And I have to use my brain to become a better dancer. You know, it’s not an outside in thing. It’s a inside out thing.

Jeff: How do you think the young man that James was when he started going to the summer intensives would view the book that has manifested itself many years later?

James: Oh my gosh. I mean, I’m already feeling like heart palpitations from knowing that people are actually going to read this. I wrote it ignoring that reality and I cannot express how surprised I am by my own life, at times. I look at the opportunities I get and the life I lead and I am, I don’t know. I just can’t believe how lucky I am. and I know it’s trite and absurd, but I’ve always been a little delusional in a productive way. And I… while I had big dreams and big goals and all that stuff. I couldn’t have predicted my own fortune. Yeah. I’m, I’m really just thrilled.

Jeff: And I like how you keep presenting I’ll call them essentially life lessons for folks. I look at, the passage in there about as you initially were a principal dancer in Boston and how that transition over to ABT happened. And you stood your ground, that you weren’t going to go backwards as opposed to just making the leap. But I think lessons like that are important for people to know that you don’t just have to take something, you can actually strive for what you want to.

James: Yeah, it’s, it’s interesting to me like not a whole lot of people read the book yet. In real time it comes out tomorrow and the people who have read it often mentioned that moment to me It’s so funny because I’ve never really considered it. It didn’t feel like this big, I don’t know, dramatic thing.

And I’ll just give you a quick overview of what happens. So. I was a dancer with Boston Ballet for 10 years, I made it up to the rank of principal dancer and American Ballet Theater in New York city was always my dream company. And I was having a wonderful career in Boston, but I wanted to audition for American Ballet Theater. And so during the “Nutcracker” season where we have one day off and it’s really rigorous and wild performance schedule, I took the Fung Wah bus to New York City, slept on my brother’s couch in the lower east side, woke up early went to ABT Studios and the Flat Iron neighborhood of Manhattan and took a ballet class with the company in hopes that they would offer me a contract. I sent along my resume and my headshot and some videos of me dancing.

And after the class the director offered me a soloist contract. I had already been a principal dancer with Boston Ballet, and I was willing to take the soloist contract to go down a level to join my dream company in New York City.

So I was thrilled. This was an amazing opportunity. I was so excited. I went back to Boston, finished the run of the “Nutcracker.” I got a call from the ABT director saying, listen, James, we can not have you come as a soloist. How do you feel about coming as corps de ballet, which is two ranks down from principal dancer.

So I was a principal dancer going all the way back down to the base rank. It’s like, you’re the CEO and then all of a sudden you’re the intern. I was not thrilled. And I said, I’d think about it. And I called back and I said, I have worked really hard. And I just can’t, I can’t do that. I’m disappointed and I’m sorry, but I just can’t do it. And about 20 minutes later, the director called me back and said, all right, soloist it is. And that was that.

Jeff: Yeah. Going for what you want. As a creative myself, you’re always kind of worried about if I don’t take this thing, I’m not going to get it again. And you think about that and that’s what made that so, to me, a ballsy move, it’s like good for you. I was cheering for you as I read.

James: I didn’t think it was going to work. I had accepted my fate of, I will remain in my very comfortable place in Boston Ballet, I didn’t know I was playing hard ball. It felt definite, finite and completely out of my control. So I was really surprised when I got a call back saying, all right, let’s do this.

Jeff: And now you are where you are, you know.

James: Woohoo

Jeff: seven or eight years later.

One of the funniest moments and probably the funniest moment in the book for me is your flight from hell, which you have turned into a “Pussycat Dolls” musical,

James: Like two of the most nonsensical things you can say in a sentence.

Jeff: Exactly. And it’s going to influence any flight delay that I have probably for the rest of my life. How did that kind of coalesce in your creative brain to take, here’s this really awful flight and I’m going to adapt it this way, because in the book it presents itself as a script.

James: The whole book is pretty experimental. Like I barely graduated high school, TBQH. So I have sort of an innate confidence and curiosity that allows me to do things that I should absolutely not be doing. And one is writing a play that will appear in a book that I’ve writen.

So I wanted… I don’t even know why this happened. I was feeling particularly silly one day. And I thought to myself, I want to write about this horrible flight experience in which I got stranded and Casablanca, which is the title of the chapter.

And at the time I… like the Pussycat Dolls reunion song had just come out and I was like really vibing on it, and I loved the music video and it’s like just the gayest thing you’ve ever seen. I thought, okay, I want to write a play. I want it to be a musical featuring Pussycat Dolls songs woven throughout the narrative in an absurdist nonsensical way and I feel like it sort of works.

Jeff: Totally does, and from my point of view, could this just be your next vanity project, please?

James: Oh my gosh. Could you imagine? I mean, just, I’m going to have Nicole Scherzinger call me and I’ll say, well, do you want to make it?

Jeff: Cause yeah, I mean, one of the other chapters in there too is about your vanity project. The trials and tribulations of putting that together. I think it’s another look at how creative life can go in so many different ways in this case, just making you very, very, very ill as you went along.

James: Yeah. That was trying.

Jeff: You’ve got so many creative outlets. And in this book you talk about James as dancer and choreographer, but you’ve also got JBDubs, the musician, and then there’s Ühu Betch, who is a drag queen. And now you’ve got writer, James. How does it feel to have yet another side of you kind of out in public?

James: You know, it’s so strange to cut these little pieces of me in to separate entities. I think I separated JBDubs and Ühu Betch from my ballet persona early on, because I was scared of… I don’t know, I was scared it would negatively affect my ballet career and my ascension in the ballet world. And perhaps it did. It’s hard to tell people are really reluctant to just be outwardly hateful, you know, in, in a sort of explicit way when it comes to judgment. So I don’t know, as I get older, I’m like, no, these are all, they’re alter egos, but they’re also just, they’re just things I like to do.

Call it a hobby, you know, and writing, is just another way to express myself. It’s innocuous and feels great. And I feel free to explore what I’ve got going on in my mind.

Jeff: And it’s interesting with the cover too that I didn’t realize until I actually held it because you can’t quite get it in the thumbnails on like Amazon, but this is you obviously in a dance position, but you’re wearing this most amazing sparkly dress.

James: Oh yeah.

Jeff: Which I adore. You can kind of see the melding of your personas even coming together in the book cover.

James: Can I talk about the book cover for a second?

Jeff: Absolutely.

James: So, there’s this artist that I really like. His name is Daniel Clark and he’s a digital painter. And I did not want to have just like a weird, strange photo of myself, like a super close up of my face on my book. I just couldn’t do it. And I thought, you know, I want to have an artist do something for the cover. And so I contacted this artist, Daniel, and I said, I love your work. I would love to have you adapt a photo of me into a painting. And so he picked this great photo of me in this sparkly dress and a pair of Converse. And when he sent it to me and the publisher, we were like, yes, this is great. And then the cover designers did wonders with background, color and font and everything. And I’m really happy with it.

Jeff: Yeah, it’s very distinctive and bold, and you know, even the back cover where sub might go with a standard headshot of which there is actually one of you on the back flap. But then there’s this other dance pose of you essentially naked. Did he also do the back cover?

James: Yeah, and that’s based on a photo that Mike Ruiz took a couple of years ago.

Jeff: Do you still adopt your musician and drag personas now? I couldn’t quite get that from the book, if these are still very active personas for you even in, you know, 2021.

James: Oh, absolutely. So, in 2020, I actually released an album of music as JBDubs. It’s called “Bodega Bouquet” and it’s as gay as the day is long and very fun and sexy. And as far as drag goes, let’s see, what’s the most recent drag. I mean, you can check out my Instagram to see one of my favorite drag characters that I do. Her name is Shannon Bobannon, and she is a news anchor and she reports on everything from, you know, the weather to, you know, what’s going on in the news and just little exposés here and there. And she is pure nonsense.

Jeff: We will find some of those and link them at our show notes so then people can go immediately.

James: You won’t be sorry.

Jeff: And you’ve added kind of another persona, I guess now, because you are also voicing the audio book for “Center Center.” Which is yet another different performance experience. How was it for you actually recording the stories that you wrote?

James: Oh, my gosh. It was so weird to be in a tiny room, reading your own book aloud for hours a day. I don’t know, it was, it was a very singular experience and I have a huge newfound respect for voice actors and narrators. Specifically the chapter, the “Pussycat Dolls” musical was so much fun, but a huge challenge for me, I’m not a trained voice actor. I was just sort of going with what I had written and trying to make these characters really stand out. There were some really extreme characters in that story. And I just wanted it to be fun for the listener essentially. I had the best time working on that and the producers and the director, they were great.

Jeff: And it’s interesting that you have now, got this little bit of voice acting thing, cause there’s a few places in the book where you talk about the, I’ll call it bizarre for lack of a better term, the bizarre acting that ballet dancers do because of what’s required in that performance art.

James: There’s no speaking in ballet. So I’m telling a story, you know, a three hour story without saying anything. It’s body language. It’s pantomime. It’s truly strange by comparison to television and film.

But I’m a huge fan of animated television. I love the comedies. I adore, I mean, I’m a huge fan of like “Family Guy” and “BoJack Horseman” and “Bob’s Burgers” and “The Simpsons” and “Rick and Morty” you know, the list goes on and I feel like maybe someday, somehow I would love to work on an animated television show as an actor or a writer or whatever.

Jeff: Now earlier this summer you actually premiered your latest ballet piece called “City of Women.” Quite a beautiful piece that our listeners can actually catch on YouTube if they want as part of ABTS summer celebration which runs through September 15th.

You’ve worked on that for a few years now, including some workshops that happened. How does building a piece of choreography actually compare to the creative process of writing a book?

James: They feel like they come from the same well, but they’re completely different processes. When I’m choreographing, I like to start with the music and an idea and sort of an atmosphere. Then I map out the music on paper. I have like a specific way of making notations, musically. And then in each section, I’ll write down what I want to be happening during that section. And whether it’s a solo with one person, or if it’s a group or what’s happening pattern wise or step wise. And I do that throughout the whole piece of music and then start to build it with dancers in the space.

Jeff: How much do you know from your notes to coming in with the dancers? Is that, would you kind of equate that to your first draft, if you will, and then you’re essentially editing it as you watch the dancers?

James: Yes, I absolutely make the piece in my head and then teach it to the dancers. And then once I teach to the dancers, there’s so much to polish and cut away and fine tune. It’s really like the editing and proofreading process.

Jeff: And except in this case, you are the editor and the writer in some ways.

James: Yeah, I’m doing everything. I think I prefer the book route where you have more eyes on it, more honest eyes. I was really just thrilled with the whole editing process. I was amazed by everyone’s attention to detail.

Jeff: Do you think you’ve got another book of some kind in you, whether it’s memoir or perhaps fiction or something else?

James: Oh, absolutely. I would love to continue exploring essay collections. I would love to try my hand at a teen series a fiction. So perhaps you’ll see that in the coming years.

Jeff: Oh, that would be awesome. I love young adult fiction. It’s one of my passions just to see how stories are presented to young people. So yeah, that I could just see that being really amazing.

What do you hope people take away from “Center Center.”

James: “Center Center” for me is a book about expression and feeling seen. So when people finish this book, I hope their humanness feels acknowledged. I want people to feel emboldened, to try to express themselves in new and exciting ways. To connect with people who are interested in similar things to not be shy, to have confidence in the things and ways that they’re expressing themselves. And most of all, I just want people to laugh and have a good time.

Jeff: And have some Kleenex nearby too, cause there are moments. I actually, I really like what Misty Copeland gave you as a blurb, that “Center Center” shows there’s a place in the world for anyone who’s ever felt lost, misunderstood or outragously passionate. And I love the outrageously passionate emphasis there, because I think we all tend to lose that a little bit as we’re just kind of meandering through our lives, if you will.

James: Yeah. It takes a lot of courage to be outrageously passionate and it’s tough. And you need support and friends and family and the belief in yourself to do it.

Jeff: Now we always ask our guests for recommendations. What’s something you’ve read or watched recently that our listeners should not miss.

James: I’m currently reading the fourth book in the “Stormlight Archives,” which is Brandon Sanderson’s fantasy epic. It is wonderful. It is very long as you know, in the fantasy tradition. It truly is an epic. I’m loving that. I listened to Trevor Noah’s audio book called “Born a Crime.” Incredible. His narration is perfection.

Jeff: And what’s coming up for you next now that “Center Center’s” out there. What do we have to look forward to in the coming months?

James: Well, American Ballet Theatre will be returning to Lincoln Center for their fall season in October. So I hope all you listeners, get your tickets and get your butts in those seats because it’s going to be a party once those shows get going.

Jeff: Absolutely. Do you know what you might be dancing during that time?

James: Yes. Yes. I’ll be dancing “Giselle,” which is a beautiful, full length, classical ballet. It’s perhaps my favorite or at least in the top three. And then we’ll be doing some new works and ABT classics, like “Pillar of Fire.”

Jeff: Fantastic. Oh, I wish I could get to New York in October cause “Giselle” that’s one of my favorites as well.

James: It’s truly just exquisite. Yeah. If you haven’t seen “Giselle” get your butt into a ballet theater ASAP. It’s truly exquisite.

Jeff: Yes, absolutely. What’s the best way for people to keep up with you online to know about future projects. You mentioned Instagram, and so we’ll definitely be linking to that.

James: Yeah. I have an Instagram and a TikTok and my handle is @JamesBWhiteside, and you can check out my website, You can find me on YouTube, just Google me.

Jeff: Google him and then he will magically appear on your screen. And we’ll put all that into the show notes so that people can easily click and find it too. James, thanks so much for spending some time with us and best of luck with “Center Center.”

James: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. And I hope everyone enjoys the book.


Will: This episode’s transcript is brought to you by our community on Patreon. If you’d like to read the conversation for yourself, simply head on over to the show notes page for this episode at And don’t forget the show notes page also has links to everything that we’ve talked about in this episode.

Jeff: And thanks again to James for coming on the show. I have to say, as many interviews as I’ve done for this show over the years, this had to be one of the most intimidating ones. Not only did I want to keep my fanboy side in check, but I’m so used to talking about fiction that I was a little freaked out deciding on how to ask questions about a memoir since these are not made up stories, these are stories out of James’s actual life.

He was a terrific guest. And I do think the interview turned out good, but as I was recording it, I was just hoping that I wouldn’t make some horrific blunder with all of this. So yeah, a little behind the scenes there of the podcast for you.

Meanwhile, as we said in our review, we highly recommend the book. And if you get the opportunity to see James perform, definitely take advantage of that because he is so stunning to watch.

Will: All right. I think that’ll do it for now. Coming up on Monday and episode 333 author and podcaster Brad Shreve is going to be joining us.

Jeff: We’ve got a great conversation with Brad about the Queer Writers of Crime podcast, as well as his “Mitch O’Reilly Mystery” series.

Will: On behalf of Jeff and myself, we want to thank you so much for listening, and we hope that you’ll join us again soon for more discussions about the kind of stories we all love, the big gay fiction kind. Until then keep turning those pages and keep reading.

Big Gay Fiction Podcast is part of the Frolic Podcast Network. Find more shows you’ll love at Production assistance by Tyson Greenan. Original theme music by Daryl Banner.