a time to be alive. So many wonderful books came out this year and when I think
about the current state of literature in America, I’m amazed by how many
talented storytellers are writing such compelling and urgent books. It’s also
encouraging to see publishing become more inclusive to stories by writers of
color and queer-identifying authors. I know there is a lot to distract us in
our current moment—the impeachment hearings, mass shootings, the president’s
Twitter rants, the upcoming election, and a general sense that monumental
political, social, and economic shifts are taking place on a global scale—but I
find solace knowing that books are still here for us, with the quiet,
meditative, and introspective experiences they offer.
This was the year that I discovered Eve Babitz. I know I’ve arrived (very) late to this party, but alas. I picked up a copy of Black Swans at McNally Jackson in SoHo, one of my favorite indies in New York. I devoured it before my plane landed in California, the state I now call home and which Babitz writes about. I bet she’d hate being called an L.A. writer, but her stories are so L.A. She could write about paint drying and I would read every word of it. So when I got back to Fresno, I immediately ordered LA Woman and Slow Days, Fast Company and read them by the pool. Her prose style makes me envious; her eye for detail is sharp. Now I want to get drunk and make questionable decisions at the Chateau Marmont.
I taught a summer workshop in Provincetown and two of my students recommended Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance. They had seen the production in London and said the entire audience was weeping and holding each other at the end. How can you not immediately read something with that kind of recommendation? Fast forward a couple of weeks, I’m sitting in a coffeeshop, alone, crying over this book. I should have known not to read it in public, but at least they had napkins. I rarely cry from books, but it really is that good. The two-play structure reminded me of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, but this feels more relevant for the PrEP-era and I think they would make an interesting pairing on a college syllabus.
Three debut novels really swept me away this year. The Unpassing by Chia-Chia Lin is so precisely observed and tells the story of a Taiwanese immigrant family of six living in Alaska. In the beginning, one of the children dies of meningitis and this looms over the characters for the rest of their lives. Lin’s writing is beautiful and heartbreaking. I especially loved the descriptions of the Alaskan terrain. I had no idea that mudflats existed until I read this novel—and now I’m both mystified and terrified of them.
The second of those debuts was Say Say Say by Lila Savage. It’s about a young woman who works as a home care attendant for a woman who suffers a brain injury after a car accident. The main character is the attendant who observes the quiet heartbreaks in this married couple’s life together. It’s a short crystal of a book, so finely observed and intimate in the way it renders the domestic realm, of lives lived and a partnership upended by an unexpected accident.
In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow was the third debut. I could not put this book down. The book spans four decades, takes place in a fictionalized North Carolina town, and centers on the lives of Knot and Otis Lee. Knot is an alcoholic who isn’t about to let any man tell her what to do. She loves booze and men and long novels and speaking her mind. I don’t want to say anything more about the plot, other than that it is engrossing. I finished the book in two days and I didn’t want it to end. Winslow is so good at writing dialogue.
I spent a month at MacDowell and befriended a wildly talented young composer. One afternoon, Matthew and I rode our bicycles into town to browse the Toadstool Bookshops. We had talked about Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara, so poetry was on our mind. I recommended Jorie Graham’s The Dream of the Unified Field (a book that has always been there for me when I needed it most), and he recommended John Ashberry’s Girls on the Run (which I read in my cottage in the woods).
I received an advanced reader copy of Under the Rainbow by Celia Laskey this year and totally loved it. It’s a collection of stories that is going to be published by Riverhead in 2020 about a homophobic town in Kansas. An LGBT-rights group sends activists to live in the community in hopes of swaying public opinion. I loved the polyphonic nature of this book and how Laskey inhabits the various perspectives that would comprise of such a place.
Trust Exercise by Susan Choi and Great House by Nicole Krauss are two books I read this year that really push the form of the novel. I read them with an eye toward structure and I was amazed by how brilliantly each of them were scaffolded.
Two of the books that I assigned to students this year that I’m wildly excited by are Lot by Bryan Washington and Alice Munro’s Selected Stories. Washington’s prose style is really voice driven, which is so up my alley. His sentences are fierce; the language sizzles on the page. Munro is a goddess and my saying that isn’t anything new. I’m in awe of how she plays with time on the page and her ability to characterize even the most minor of characters in one or two sentences. In the past, I would usually read one Munro story at a time, then wait another few months before reading the next. This is the first time that I’ve read a couple of her stories each week, for 16 weeks in a row. It’s quite the experience to be saturated in Alice Munro. I’m obsessed with her recurring characters Flo and Rose, but since I’m reading the Selected, I need to add The Beggar Maid to my TBR list. I want to see the full arc of their lives.
I’m ending the year with essays. Right now, I’m toggling between Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist and Rachel Cusk’s Coventry. Their prose styles and topics of interest are very different from each other, but I think there are thematic similarities to both books. Perhaps too early to say, though. I’m only about 50 percent through each one. I read two essays from Bad Feminist, then one from Coventry, and repeat.
Finally, I have Sally Rooney’s Normal People next to my luggage. I plan on reading it on the plane when I visit family for Thanksgiving. I live and breathe for Sally Rooney’s dialogue.
I had the chance to see it, “the greatest American play of the waning years of the 20th century.” Angels in America was being produced at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco in 1994, and I held tickets. The play had won the Pulitzer, the Tony, and heaps of praise by then, and I wanted in on the cultural moment. But when curtain time drew near for Part One: Millennium Approaches, on a weeknight after a full day at the office and with my kids waiting at home, I collapsed. I didn’t have the stamina to sit through a two-intermission, 3.5 hour play that would run until almost midnight. My husband accompanied me home, gallantly never once mentioning our forfeit of the orchestra seats we’d splurged on.
Regret welled up as soon as I walked in the door. I saw that the kids would’ve been perfectly fine without me—there were three of them; they were a self-entertaining lot, and the babysitter was a dream. We didn’t call it FOMO then but my Fear of Missing Out was every bit as gnawing. I compensated in the years that followed by seeing other Tony Kushner works—Slavs!; Homebody/Kabul; Caroline, or Change; The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures; and the Spielberg movies he wrote, Munich and Lincoln. I went to hear Kushner speak and was amazed at his ravening curiosity, the breadth of his knowledge. Listening to him give a five-part answer to a one-part question was like watching Robin Williams scoop up a stray phrase and run with it, pausing after a couple of miles to let the rest of us catch up. I watched the HBO Angels mini-series more than once. But none of those offerings, dazzling as they were, matched in my imagination the sublime experience of seeing Angels performed live onstage.
So I was brimming with expectation when I went to see the 2018 production of Angels at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in back-to-back matinees—Part One: Millennium Approaches on Saturday, and Part Two: Perestroika on Sunday. I’d waited 24 years and this time, I wasn’t going to whiff. There was just one problem: my eyes were out of whack; my vision was askew. I couldn’t properly see the stage or anyone on it.
In April, a good three months before, I’d had cataract surgery in one eye. I’m nearsighted in both eyes; I’ve been wearing glasses since age six, and I’d developed a cloudy lens in the left eye. They sucked out my old lens and implanted a new plastic one that gives me wonderfully clear vision in the left eye when I’m viewing an object 33 centimeters away. The right eye, unclouded, they left alone. I assumed that, after surgery, I’d get a new pair of glasses with a revised prescription for my revamped eyes. Sure, said the doctor. We can try. Try? What hadn’t I understood?
It turns out, glasses no longer correct my vision. In fact, they boggle it. The condition is called anisometropia, when the refractive power of one eye differs from that of the other. My eyes are now so mismatched that they no longer play well together. Pictures beamed in through my glasses are of different size: the left eye sees things bigger and clearer than the right, and my brain refuses to meld them into a single, coherent image.
A contact lens, which sits directly on the eyeball, can correct for the difference. With a single contact lens in my right eye, I would have been able to watch the play without disturbance. But the contact lens was giving me trouble, and I couldn’t wear it. I had only two choices: wear no glasses, which would leave me so nearsighted that I couldn’t see past the back of the head of the person sitting in front of me. Or wear a pair of glasses that left my eyes fighting and my vision swimming.
I took my seat and put on the glasses. My brain began protesting: what was it looking at? I tried to focus and couldn’t. I wasn’t seeing double, exactly. There weren’t two ghostly images side-by-side. I was seeing asymmetrically, as though one eye was looking through the proper end of a pair of binoculars and the other eye, goofing around, had turned the binoculars backwards and was peering through the wrong end. I was acutely aware, as one usually is not, that I was looking through two different eyes.
The play began. Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz, alone onstage, addressed invisible mourners in a speech that has always thrilled me, invoking “the clay of some Litvak shtetl, your air the air of the steppes.” I could hardly take it in. How was I going to watch the damn play if I couldn’t see it?
Then Roy Cohn took center stage declaring,“I wish I was an octopus, a fucking octopus” and hitting the hold buttons on his phone like punching life in its face, pay attention to ME! And Joe, the lost and closeted acolyte, who sits and watches Cohn in wonder, mistaking this terrible man, so alive, for a father. What was I hearing, what was I seeing, what was Kushner trying with furious intent to tell me? I was at war with myself. I took off the glasses, trying to scold myself into sight, and the scene dissolved into a smeary blur. Back on the glasses went. I’d have to watch the whole thing, and the next part tomorrow, doing battle with the multiplicity jostling in my head.
Around the same time, I’d been reading the novel Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday. Like a play, it’s told in three acts. Part One is about a young woman, tentative and bright, who has a love affair with a brilliant and famous writer some 40 years older. She’s an editorial assistant living in New York, and the action mostly takes place in apartments, on city benches, and at the famous writer’s country house. The narrator is offstage; the tone is direct and often funny, made poignant by resonating sadness. There’s an unlikely sweetness to the affair though trouble finally occurs, as in, something just occurred to me, a woman might say to her lover. The thought held back for a long time—months, even years—either unconsciously or with glad cooperation, the woman complicit in her own constraining, until truth inevitably rises. At just that moment, Part One ends.
Part Two, entirely different, proceeds without introduction or explanation. An Iraqi-American man, an economist, is speaking to us directly while detained by security officers at a London airport on his way to see his brother, a doctor living in Sulaymaniyah, a city in Iraqi Kurdistan. Forced to wait for hour upon hour, deprived of liberty and agency, and suspended between boredom and the agony of not being able to find out what he desperately wants to know, the narrator, Amal Jaafari, travels the stunted pathways of his past as he exactingly recounts his memories of his brother, parents, friends, and a love affair. Intelligent, darkly humorous, and possessed of an enviably even temperament, Amal comes alive to us—a sensitive individual trapped in a maddening world.
Parts One and Two are seemingly unrelated until we read Part Three. I won’t describe what we learn—you’ll want to experience for yourself Halliday’s gifts. In any event, it isn’t critical to appreciating the multiple ways in which the novel focuses our inquiry, and wonder, not on sameness, that usual balm—the similarities between us, the universal truths that bind together the family of man—but on stark difference. The affair between the young editor, Alice, and the famous writer, Ezra, is a study in ludicrous imbalance. He’s rich and celebrated; she doesn’t have the money to buy herself a winter coat. He has a commanding knowledge of literature, history, film, music; she mispronounces Camus. “I’ll show you what to read,” he tells her, and does. But Alice has the one thing he’s already exhausted: a whole life ahead of her. “Oh, Mary-Alice. Sweet Mary-Alice! I want you to win. Do you know?” Ezra tells her.
“Why wouldn’t I?” Alice says, with the breathtaking assurance of youth. His fingers tremble; so do our hearts as we look straight down into the chasm between them.
My daughter and I argue about the book. She’s in her mid-20s, also a writer, and a voracious reader whose tastes often coincide with mine. Ever since she was a child steeping herself in books, she and I have spent many hours comparing notes on what we’ve read. Soon she’ll be moving across the country to set upon a new path and our time together will change, but for now we carry on as always—debating, discussing, buying each other our favorites and carrying volumes back and forth between her apartment and my house. I’m taken by surprise at how strongly we disagree over Halliday’s novel. It’s as though we’ve read two different books. She says it’s about how, when you’re young, you look to others—older others—for instruction on how to live, but later, you don’t need the guidance. You discard those teachers and make your own life.
It’s true that Alice, like Joe in Angels, is an acolyte of sorts. She reads the books that Ezra gives her, orders the whiskey he first pours her, and watches and absorbs how hard he works. She underlines a passage by Camus in a book that he selected for her: “when I was very young, very foolish, and very much alone…you paid attention to me and, without seeming to, you opened for me the door to everything I love in the world.” And so, I see my daughter’s point, that Alice is looking to Ezra to teach her how to live, in anticipation of someday making her own life.
But that isn’t the main point, I insist. To me, the book is a brilliant exercise in imagination. How far can a writer stretch herself to think the thoughts, speak the words, dwell in the past of someone with whom she has nothing in common other than human life? This is a novel about empathy, I say. About how writing a novel is itself an act of empathy, to be attended to and emulated. That’s what Alice is learning from Ezra. And though we’re often told that evoking empathy is the purpose of the novel, it’s rare that one does it so well.
My daughter scoffs. She points out that Ezra is loosely based on Philip Roth. “All he ever wrote about was himself,” she says. Her words sting. Wasn’t I, after all, the person who urged her to read Philip Roth? For despite the malice he gleefully spread, I’m in awe of his audacity and language. She knows I revere his masterpiece American Pastoral, a towering work of immigrant fiction, though nobody calls it that. I’d pressed that novel into my daughter’s hands, later gratified that she read and liked it. “He writes about other people too,” I say weakly. She gives me a skeptical look. “Well, different versions of himself,” I explain. “Anyway, we’re talking about Halliday, not Roth.”
Polar opposites, chalk and cheese, left versus right, combatants. This is what I’m thinking as I struggle to watch Angels. Almost all the scenes in Part One: Millennium Approaches and many in Part Two: Perestroika are between two profoundly mismatched characters—either two people, or one person and a figment or a supernatural force. Split scenes have two people on one side and two on the other. The pairings at the start—the lovers Louis and Prior; Joe and Harper, husband and wife; power broker Roy Cohn and his wide-eyed protégé, Joe—soon begin to break apart. Prior and Harper inhabit each other’s dreams, and Mr. Lie, travel agent to the Valium-kissed, whisks Harper off to Antarctica, hints of the chaos to come. Prior, in a fever state or not, finds himself talking to the Voice, and the terrifying Angel crashes through his bedroom ceiling. “Millennium,” Kushner tells us, “is a play about security and certainty being blown apart, while Perestroika is about danger and possibility following the explosion.”
The pairings come apart and newer, weirder relationships are formed, rife at first with suspicion and misunderstanding. Joe, the closeted husband whom we met at the start, has a love affair with Louis, and Joe’s stringent Mormon mother comforts AIDS-stricken Prior, the man Louis has abandoned. Most ironically, Roy Cohn, now dying of AIDS though he calls it liver cancer, is visited bedside by Ethel Rosenberg, whose execution by electric chair Cohn helped assure. Connections are made, sympathy is stirred. Questions are pleadingly put to figments and forces who leave the answering to us.
“I I I I,” the Angel says. Eye eye eye eye is what I hear. “I PROPHESY I HAVE SIGHT I SEE” Prior tells Joe when he goes looking for his ex-boyfriend’s new lover. It seems a taunt, all these proclamations about sight and vision, as I sit there, crazed. But now the mismatched are listening to each other, with suffering the bridge between them. The “blue streak of recognition…Like you knew me incredibly well” that Harper saw when she first looked at Prior has maybe, momentarily, fused these characters into a state of understanding. Against all probability, given where they started, they are seeing the world through another person’s eyes.
The Angel withdraws. “More Life,” Prior tells us. “The Great Work Begins.”
I emerge into daylight, my thoughts swimming as well as my sight. Everyone around me is stunned and exhausted. Kushner would be pleased, I think. It is a play “meant to stagger the people who are producing it,” he once told Terry Gross. It staggers the people watching it, too. Perhaps he’d be satisfied that I had to struggle to see it, that because of my blighted eyesight, I remained the whole time all too conscious of the artifice onstage. He wanted the audience to see the Angel’s wires, to put us “right on the edge of belief and disbelief.”
I go home, happy at last that I’ve had my cultural moment. Angels has confirmed what Halliday’s novel showed me: empathy is an act of imagination. The more different one person is from another—the more asymmetric—the greater the act of empathy that’s required. And the writer who can fully imagine the life of someone far different is especially worthy of our praise.
My daughter is ready to go. In a couple of days, she moves away. I’d hoped we’d have time for more meals together, another conversation or two about the books that we’re reading, but she’s busy packing and saying farewell to her friends. I’ll have to settle for a rushed good-bye. I think again of our argument and how she missed the crucial theme of Halliday’s book. Alice grows up, she’d told me. She doesn’t need Ezra to guide her anymore. No, I’d said, and argued for my better, wiser reading.
But doesn’t her view of the book, in fact, describe my daughter? And pinpoint the moment at which she has arrived? She’s making her own way in the world. Shedding the ministrations and models of her elders, namely: me. She doesn’t need me anymore to guide her. She’s more than equipped to leave me and step through the door to everything she loves in the world. Not the Millennium but empathy approaches, and not across a gulf of vast difference between us, but across a narrow divide. At last I see her clearly, if only for a fleeting minute, and what have I discovered? That it’s blindingly difficult to imagine the life of another, whatever the circumstance. We blunder our way in darkness, our vision sharpened by pain.
Image credit: Unsplash/Sharon McCutcheon.
There are some who make writing seem like some sort of magic—they’d have you believe the stories just appear and there’s no telling where they came from. Then there are writers like Rebecca Makkai, who are more like engineers: writers who deeply understand the physics of a story, who know how to break it all down and put it back together and make it even better in the process.
I learned this about her back in early 2015 when Brian Turner, the director of the Sierra Nevada College MFA program where I was a student, assigned Rebecca as my second-semester mentor. I’d asked to be placed with her, even though I was a bit intimidated. She had two successful novels and an incredible string of four years of Best American Short Stories selections. And she had a reputation for being a tough mentor, one who didn’t allow for lazy thinking or half-assed work.
During that semester, she asked me to take apart stories, piece by piece, to figure out how they work. I wrote massive outlines of stories like “Snakes” by Danielle Evans and broke down every minuscule variation in point of view used in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad (following an eight-page, single-spaced list of possible variations of POV Rebecca created), among many other tasks. I applied what I learned in writing exercises describing imaginary cities, writing scenes over and over in different points of view, and outlining and tearing apart my own stories.
I expected, when I picked up her newest book, The Great Believers, to enjoy seeing her lessons about structure and character and conflict come to life in her own work. I wish I could point some out in a more than cursory way, but the story of two friends, Yale and Fiona, and the way their lives are rocked by the “slow motion tsunami” of the AIDS epidemic, absorbed all my attention instead. Yale is living through the worst of the epidemic as it crashes ashore in 1985 Chicago, while Fiona deals with the aftermath as she makes her way through 2015 Paris. Along the way, the reader sees the way the tragedy ripples through time, and as Publishers Weekly said in a starred review, Yale and Fiona’s stories create “a powerful, unforgettable meditation, not on death, but rather on the power and gift of life.”
Rebecca and I talked via Facebook Messenger over a few hours one evening recently about the work of crafting this novel, about the real lives that motivated her writing, and of the opportunity to draw attention to other voices telling the stories of the AIDS crisis:
The Millions: Where did the initial spark for the story come from?
Rebecca Makkai: So, this isn’t going to make much sense. I was visiting my agent right after I’d turned in my second novel, and she asked if I had an idea for my next book, and I said no. I got into a cab, and somewhere between her place and the train station, I saw this really tall, beautiful woman walking down the street, and I assumed she was a model. So I started thinking about models and about artistic muses, and I had a flash of a woman who had been an artists’ model in 1920s Paris. I set out to write about this artists’ model, and I wanted to show her at the end of her life, which couldn’t be much later than the ’80s.
So I started thinking (and this took like a year) about the gallery she’d be in contact with to donate the paintings and sketches she had from that time, and I thought about the development director she’d be in touch with, and I thought about who’d be working at a gallery in the ’80s, and I thought that AIDS might be a small part of the book.
It turned out that the AIDS theme stole most of the book’s gravity. The art is still there, but now it’s only about 5 percent.
TM: Many of your stories draw on other art forms in some way, especially fine art and classical music, stories like “Couple of Lovers on a Red Background,” “Cross,” “The Worst You Ever Feel,” and many others. Here, you have Yale trying to obtain that collection from the model. It seems like a lot of your work approaches other art forms, has a sort of conversation with those existing (or sometimes imaginary) artworks. Why do you think that is? How does it help you craft your own work?
RM: I’m not exactly sure why I write about artists so much, except that I grew up around a lot of poets and musicians (not so much around visual artists) and I relate to the way they think. I think most people do, really—whether or not we’re artists, we’re all trying to find or make beauty in the world. It’s challenging, actually, to write about pieces of art that don’t exist and to describe them so that they seem real. But it’s a lot easier to describe them than to actually PAINT them. If I could be a painter or a musician, I would be. But it’s satisfying to write about pieces of art and pieces of music and almost imagine that I made them real.
TM: In your recent piece in Poets & Writers about writing this novel over a number of artists residencies, you said that including Fiona’s narrative felt at first like a “cowardly move.” What about it felt cowardly?
RM: It was more the motivations behind the decision that initially came from a place of worry. This was still really early in the first draft, of course, but I was writing entirely from Yale’s (third person) point of view in the ’80s, and it started to feel more and more like ventriloquism, and I was really worried about a narrow story like that feeling appropriative. One possible solution, I realized, was to broaden the story quite a bit, and so Fiona’s sections came from that impulse. As soon as I tried it out, though, I knew this is what I should have done from the beginning. The 30 years that elapsed and the way that we could now learn what had happened to people, on top of the second perspective on everything—this was what made the novel really start to work for me.
I was only worried for a little while, maybe between my decision to do it and actually executing it, that I was diluting things, or backing away from my real story just because I was nervous. But once I saw the things this move opened up for me, I was thrilled that I’d pushed myself to go broader.
TM: I know from your acknowledgements that the concern about ventriloquism and appropriation was on your mind. But what would you say to the people who maybe are concerned that a straight woman is writing about something so deeply personal concerning gay men? And how did you ensure you didn’t cross that line from allyship to appropriation?
RM: I really wanted to make sure I could answer two questions satisfactorily for myself. The first was whether I could do this well, and while it’s not up to me to decide if I did, I ultimately felt that I could do it well with scads and scads of research, which I undertook over the four years I was working on the book. The second question was whether the success of this book would ultimately amplify or mute other voices on this topic. I have a couple of reasons to believe it’s the former. First of all, the way commercial publishing works, presses put their money behind books when they’ve seen similar books do well. It’s not a zero-sum game. The more successful this novel is, the more likely the next person is to get published when they’re writing a memoir or novel about AIDS or about LGBTQ history. And I have the chance now to point people toward first person accounts of the crisis and toward other art that came out of it and is still coming out of it. I hope that readers don’t stop with my book—that they move on to other accounts and that they move on to advocacy.
TM: What are some of those other accounts that you would recommend?
RM: So glad you asked! In terms of nonfiction—for those new to the topic, something compendious like David France’s How to Survive a Plague would be a good starting point (I’d recommend that over something like And the Band Played On, which is wonderful but awfully misleading about the origins of the epidemic). When We Rise by Cleve Jones is a great study of activism. I think we tend to know more theater than fiction about AIDS—Angels in America and The Normal Heart, of course, but for theater I’d also recommend Paul Rudnick’s Jeffrey, which is strange and wonderful. To pick a few pieces of fiction: Rabih Alameddine’s novel Koolaids: The Art of War is brilliant. There’s a story collection called Monopolies of Loss by the British writer Adam Mars-Jones that deals only partly with AIDS, but it really influenced me. I want to put in a word for M.K. Czerwiec’s graphic memoir Taking Turns, which chronicles her time as an AIDS nurse at Illinois Masonic in Chicago. She was a wonderful resource and early reader for my book, and her book is gut-wrenching.
TM: In your research, you spent time talking to people who had lived through the AIDS epidemic, right? I was curious how you approach that sort of conversation. It seems like such a difficult thing to do, to ask someone to talk about this incredibly tragic part of their lives.
RM: YES. Yeah, so the thing is, there turns out to be very little in book or film form about the crisis in Chicago, specifically. Everything’s about New York and San Francisco. So I ended up having to do a ton of legwork, which was actually a very good thing for the book. First of all, there was a lot of primary source material. I read every back issue of the Windy City Times, Chicago’s biggest gay weekly, from 1985 to 1992. And then I met with a lot of people. Doctors, nurses, activists, lawyers, journalists, an art therapist, survivors, people living with HIV. They were incredibly generous with their time and with their stories, and in many cases, they were sharing tremendously emotional things. And in some cases, people were telling me detailed things about their sex lives about five minutes after I’d met them. Some of them told me it was therapeutic to talk to someone who really wanted to know all this stuff. I got so much more out of talking to them than I would have out of reading some book. Their fingerprints are all over the novel.
TM: Did you ever feel any sort of tug-of-war between the fiction writer in you who saw all this great material to use and the person who knew these were true stories from people’s lives? Did you ever feel like you struggled with fictionalizing elements that might have been based in fact?
RM: Yes, definitely. It drives me nuts that there isn’t a comprehensive nonfiction account of the AIDS crisis in Chicago, and sometimes I wished I were writing it. There were so many beautiful or heartbreaking or maddening details that I couldn’t fit into my book. While people will learn things from story, I believe, its main intention is not educational, and cramming too much in there wouldn’t have felt right. I didn’t struggle with fictionalizing things—I think that’s just the way my brain works—but I did struggle with not being able to include everything. I have hours and hours of taped interviews that I had to stop myself from listening to again when I reached revision, because I knew I’d want to stuff more and more details in there, to the detriment of the broader story.
TM: Paris was attacked in the fall of 2015, while you were writing Fiona’s story, also set in Paris in the fall of 2015, so you were forced to reckon with that sudden real-life event in your novel. How did that change the story for you? What did you learn from that experience as a writer?
RM: Yeah, I was writing it kind of in real time and then the attacks happened. I could have moved the story, but it would’ve been hard, and there were a lot of timelines I’d have had to move. Plus moving it later, I’d have had to reckon with the American election, and I felt like moving it earlier wouldn’t have worked with the age of Fiona’s daughter. So, I decided to just keep the story in 2015 and deal with it. It felt thematically appropriate—the interruption, once again, of public tragedy into someone’s private drama—and it was something to shake Fiona out of her 30-year repression of some of the worst things that had happened to her and her friends in the ’80s. Ultimately, it worked for me because this wasn’t just a character-driven novel where all the conflict comes out of people’s own flaws; it’s a novel about the ways the world comes at you no matter who you are or what you do.
TM: There was an interesting sort of mirror image with the Challenger explosion in the 1985 thread. Was that something you added after having to deal with the Paris attacks, a way to create that similar experience of tragedy, or was it already in the narrative?
RM: I can’t remember which came first, but it wasn’t a related thought process for me (except that in revision I did ask myself if it was too much and ultimately decided it wasn’t; if these people really were living in these years, these incidents would indeed have affected them). The Challenger thing just came more out of my looking up the major events of 1986 and putting them on my Google calendar (I have Google calendars for my novels—it’s terribly nerdy) and that seemed like something that wouldn’t go unremarked. I had a lot of fun with that scene, actually. I think it’s the weirdest sex scene I’ve ever written.
TM: I guess tragedy brings people together in weird ways.
RM: Which is maybe the thesis of the book! I just don’t usually mean it as comically.
TM: One of the things that hit me very hard early on in the novel was the myriad of small ways these men suffered every day. There was, of course, the AIDS epidemic and the unbelievable suffering that came with that, but there were also these everyday tragedies, like not being able to hold hands when walking down the street, or when Yale was afraid to keep a photo of Charlie on his desk at work, the way they had to constantly navigate revealing—or not revealing—this important part of themselves to others.
And with Yale, I keep coming back to that detail about the missing picture on his desk, and it makes me think of something I saw recently in an interview with Tayari Jones, where she said one should write about “people and their problems, not problems and their people.”
For me, Yale felt like a deeply realized character, like Jones’ person with a problem, rather than just a problem with a person attached. There wasn’t a weak character in the book for me, but I find myself still thinking of Yale often (and it was surprising to hear you felt like there was an element of ventriloquism in earlier drafts with him).
What was your entry point for him? What was the moment where he became a fully realized character for you?
RM: It’s funny; I tried too hard to map out this novel before I started writing, and none of it worked. I realized I had to just dive in and get to know my characters first, and the first thing I wrote did end up being the first chapter—specifically, Yale’s really bizarre and lonely experience at his friend’s memorial party. I’m not sure that I knew everything about him yet, but I did start to have a real physical sense of him, a sense of him as a real person. He feels realer to me than any character I’ve ever written, to the point where I’ve occasionally forgotten he’s not real, and have thought of him as someone I once knew intimately but lost.
About the everyday stuff:
A lot of that wove itself naturally into the story, but I still had some missteps early on, some moments of ignorance. The one that sticks out to me was that in my first draft, after Yale gets separated from his friends, I had him walking down the street looking into the windows of gay bars. It wasn’t until I was interviewing someone who was talking about the Chicago bar scene back in the day that I realized that of COURSE you couldn’t look IN THE WINDOW of a gay bar in 1985. They all had shaded glass, or black-painted windows.
I had a lot of little revelatory moments like that when reading it, a lot of things I’ve done my whole life and have taken for granted these guys couldn’t do, little things that could have gotten these guys seriously hurt or even killed. It was pretty eye-opening.
TM: As you work on a novel like this, one that’s challenging and takes a number of years, how do you keep yourself excited? How do you resist that siren call of new ideas?
RM: I don’t know that this is going to work for the interview, but the honest answer is that I had this photo as my computer wallpaper for four years:
They kept staring at me.
It’s five guys at a candlelight vigil in Chicago, around 1991. I learned a lot about one of these guys, and another—the only survivor from the group—sat down and talked to me.
It wasn’t very tempting to work on anything else when they were staring at me like that.
TM: Wow. Yeah, I can see how that would keep you focused. In a recent piece in Tin House, “Candy: A Footnote,” you write that one of the pitfalls of writing is that “no one is ever going to see everything you so carefully invented for them. Not the way you intended.” Is there anything that you’re worried people won’t see here, or will see in a different way than you intended?
RM: I mean, it’s completely inevitable that people will misunderstand or misinterpret some things. One of the wonderful things for me so far with this book, though, has been the early readers who have told me that they pictured a certain lost friend in a certain role. I have my own mental pictures of these guys, but if people are plugging in memories, pictures of real people, that makes me really happy. And I was writing, in some cases, about places I’d never been, bars that have long since closed—places I could imagine but couldn’t picture. And weirdly, some of my readers will be able to picture them in detail because they were there. I like that.