From the time he was a teenager at Miami Beach High, gay-romance novelist Johnny Diaz has passionately told the stories of the people he knows best.
When Diaz was 16 in 1989, he began an internship at the Miami Herald, stationed in the old Beach Neighbors office on Lincoln Road.
“I wrote the Friends and Neighbors column every week. They had my little photo. I wrote about the Beach residents, the unsung people of the Beach and their stories,” Diaz says. “Throughout high school. I stayed on through college.”
His first editor, Patty Shillington, recently posted on Facebook:
“I'm proud to say I recognized something very special in this teenager when I hired him as a high school intern. ... He was smart, creative, funny and kind — and fit right in with all the brilliant and quirky personalities in that office, many of whom would find big-time success and fame on the national (and international) journalism and writing scene.”
Diaz publicly stepped out of the closet in 1996 when he appeared on MTV’s “Real World: Miami” as gay cast member Dan Renzi’s late-season boyfriend.
After Diaz graduated from both Miami Dade College and Florida International University, the Herald hired Diaz as a full-time general assignment reporter covering Broward County out of an office in Hollywood.
“I loved writing features, that was my passion,” he says. “Writing about people and trends people are doing. Fun stories.”
After five years, Diaz got a job in 2002 at the Boston Globe “and fell in love with New England.”
“I was writing neighborhood stories about Cambridge and Boston, profiles, neighborhood friends,” he said. “That led to being a features reporter and then a business reporter. I was there for 10 years.”
More than a decade ago, Diaz took a chance and began writing a first novel about something else he knew well: being a gay Cuban American living, working and dating in Beantown.
“Winter 2004, I was going to Club Café a lot, a gay bar. The biggest gay bar and oldest in Boston,” he said. “I would go there, have drinks with my friends. I would see all these different characters there. I thought every week there’s a story here. But not for the Globe. It’s a bigger story. Why are these guys here every week and what are they looking for? Every night during the winter I would write what would become the first chapter of ‘Boston Boys Club.’”
From the “Boston Boys Club” page on Amazon.com: “Flanked by gorgeous brick row houses in the heart of Boston’s South End, the Club Café is a bar where everybody knows your name — and who you slept with last. Every night men like Tommy Perez, Rico DiMio, and Kyle Andrews take their place among the glistening crowd sporting chest-defining shirts and lots of smooth, tanned skin, sizing up the regulars and the new blood while TV monitors blare Beyoncé and Missy Elliott.”
Diaz says that every week while developing “Boston Boys Club” he’d “write a chapter in the voice of one of my three narrators who were at Club Café.”
“It was a creative release. A creative experiment. Over six months, ‘Boston Boys Club’ was born,” he says. “I wanted to write something that was light and fun about gay men and their friendships, and looking for that special guy.”
Kensington published “Boston Boys Club” in 2007. Four more titles quickly followed: “Miami Manhunt” in 2008, “Beantown Cubans” (2009), “Take the Lead” (2011) and “Looking for Providence” (2014).
In 2010, Miami Dade College inducted Diaz into its Alumni Hall of Fame for his work in the literary arts category.
Diaz, 44, says the newer books have taken on more serious issues facing older LGBTQ people.
“I started writing the books when I was 30, 31. The characters have aged with me,” he says. “I’ve introduced different issues that gay men have dealt with in one way or another. Alcoholism, loss of a parent to cancer, having a parent with Parkinson’s, the issues of dating someone with an addiction — but all presented in a fun, light way so they won’t be too heavy.”
Diaz says he still relates to his characters.
“The issues are universal. They’re still common. Looking for Mr. Right, taking care of sick parents, dating someone who’s an alcoholic, and moving to a new city, which my character has done,” he says. “I have a partner, I lost my mom to colon cancer, my dad has Parkinson’s. I take from my own experiences to write the stories. I’m inspired by that.”
As his parents’ health declined, Diaz returned to Miami and got a job writing features stories at the Sun-Sentinel.
Diaz, who last year recovered after being diagnosed with bladder cancer, recently published another novel.
“‘Six Neck Ties.’ It’s my sixth book. I wanted to play off the number six. This one celebrates same-sex marriage and what it’s like for that one guy who watches all his friends get married and he wonders when it’s his turn. A lot of us can relate to that,” he says. “The title also plays off the movie ‘27 Dresses,’ where Katherine Heigl, the main character, is always the bridesmaid and never the bride. Tommy is always the groomsman never the groom.”
The new book takes place in Ogunquit, a popular gay summer resort in Maine.
Greg Testa, a part-time Wilton Manors resident who owns the Ogunquit Beach Inn, says he’s a big fan of Diaz and his books.
“They remind me of people, real-life people. And real-life places, which gives me goosebumps. He intermingles the New England Yankees with the Latins,” Testa says. “And Johnny Diaz looks like Justin Trudeau — he has that good look going.”