Andrew Holleran Talks with A&U’s Lester Strong
“I feel incredibly lucky. I’m sitting here now on this beautiful day in May, looking at these beautiful tulips in the sunlight.”
The speaker is novelist Andrew Holleran, the place Abingdon Square Park in New York City’s Greenwich Village, the words his reply to the question, “How do you feel having survived the last quarter-century of AIDS?”
This has been quite a year for Holleran. In January, the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Round Table of the American Library Association announced he was the winner of the 2007 Barbara Gittings Book Award in Literature for his novel Grief, published in September 2006. And on May 7, the evening before our interview, Publishing Triangle, the association of lesbians and gay men in publishing, presented him with its Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Holleran burst onto the literary scene in 1978 with his first novel Dancer from the Dance, a highly acclaimed satirical look at the hedonistic life of all-night danceterias and easy sex, booze, and drugs gay men created for themselves in 1970s’ New York. In 1983, he published his second novel, Nights in Aruba, a coming-of-age tale about a young man whose life reflects more than a hint of autobiographical detail from Holleran’s own life, and that book was followed in 1988 by Ground Zero, a collection of essays on the AIDS crisis. His third novel, The Beauty of Men, the story of a middle-aged gay man caring for his paralyzed mother in northern Florida whose romantic and sexual life has reached a low ebb, appeared in 1996, and a collection of his short stories, In September, the Light Changes, was published in 1999. His most recent novel Grief, a haunting meditation on personal loss and its aftermath set in and among the buildings and monuments of Washington, D.C., appeared in 2006, as noted earlier.
By most literary standards, this is not a large output. By any literary standard, however, it is exquisitely written. It takes the reader through the social and emotional landscapes of contemporary gay male life, much of it infused with what can only be called an AIDS-dominated sensibility.
As someone who participated in the post-Stonewall flowering of gay life and culture during the 1970s, it’s not surprising that Holleran was overwhelmed emotionally by the AIDS crisis when it erupted. And as a writer whose first published novel explored the gay male world of 1970s’ America, it’s not surprising that his later fiction reflected the effects of that crisis since the gay world has been dominated by AIDS from the early 1980s on.
“How did my experience with AIDS start?” said Holleran when asked to recount his first memories of the epidemic. “I was living in New York City at the time, on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village. It started for me with a friend named Eddie, a bon vivant we all loved who worked the door at Studio 54. Eddie went to the dentist one day, and the dentist discovered tumors on his gums—KS lesions. Eddie was also the first friend I had who died from AIDS. It just went from person to person after that. It was unbelievably horrible—the shock, the disbelief, the difficulty knowing what to believe and what not to believe about what was causing all this illness and death. I remember going to the gay disco The Saint at one point, frightened I could get it from the water fountain, from people’s sweat. Just insane stuff. And the panic!”
In 1983, Holleran moved to rural northern Florida, to care for his elderly parents. But leaving the East Village—which along with New York City’s Greenwich Village and Chelsea districts were major early epicenters of the plague—did not mean escaping the plague’s effects. “This was before the Internet and e-mail,” he said during the interview. “It wasn’t uncommon for me to receive six-, seven-, even eight-page letters from friends each week, many of them with news about other friends who were sick or dying.”
Among those who died were some close writer friends. In 1980–1981, Holleran had been part of the Violet Quill, a small circle of New York-based gay writers—Holleran, Edmund White, Felice Picano, Robert Ferro, Michael Grumley, George Whitmore, Christopher Cox—who met for mutual support and critiques of their current works-in-progress. The members of this group placed their gay experience at the center of their writing, and later became celebrated as pioneers in the creation of a post-Stonewall, gay liberation renaissance in gay male writing through such novels as Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance, Whitmore’s The Confessions of Danny Slocum (1980), White’s A Boy’s Own Story (1982), and Ferro’s The Family of Max Desir (1983). By the end of 1989, however, four of these seven writers were dead from AIDS: Ferro, Grumley, Whitmore, and Cox.
As a friend, Holleran had to confront the deaths of these and other individuals he knew and loved; as a gay man he had to confront the fear of becoming ill and dying himself, especially in the early years of the epidemic when the cause and modes of transmission of the illness weren’t clear; and as a writer he had to confront in a literary way a subject that haunted his life every day but was both terrifying and painful to think about.
“When the epidemic first started,” Holleran said during the interview, “I remember thinking, ‘My God. You’ll never be able to write again. There’s only one subject now—AIDS. And the only people who have the right to write about it are those who have it. You can’t do camp anymore. You can’t do humor. How can you write fiction? Who could make up anything that could match what is going on?’”
It wasn’t many years before some distinguished literature dealing with the plague did emerge—novels like Robert Ferro’s Second Son (1988) and David Feinberg’s Eighty-Sixed (1989); plays like William Hoffman’s As Is (1985) and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (1990–1991). Holleran’s initial compromise, however, was essays on AIDS, published originally in the gay magazine Christopher Street and collected in the 1988 book Ground Zero. These days, Holleran dismisses the essays as “little more than elegies for friends,” but they are a great deal more. Referencing writers and topics as diverse as F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Santayana, Marcel Proust, Henry James, fashion, gay baths and porno theaters, life in rural Florida and in metro New York, promiscuity, celibacy, good sex/bad sex, and anger, among many others, they are an illuminating glance into one gay man’s psyche as he confronts a tragedy almost beyond comprehension. They encompass humor as well as sadness, burlesque as well as elegy, and are not easily forgotten.
By the mid-1990s, moreover, Holleran himself had begun incorporating AIDS into his fiction. “Enough time had passed,” he explained in the interview. “I was in grief. Friends had died, and I didn’t want them forgotten.”
AIDS is not the central theme of Holleran’s novels The Beauty of Men or Grief, but its presence is nevertheless pervasive. It weaves through each story in the form of memories of friends who have died from the disease, haunting many of the characters to the point of a psychological paralysis that leaves them unable to reach out to others in any meaningful way emotionally or sometimes even sexually. As the protagonist of Grief thinks to himself about his regular visits to one of D.C.’s all-male sex venues: “That was one reason no doubt I simply walked around the halls but never touched a human being: the presence of the dead.”
Of course “the presence of the dead” from AIDS these days haunts not just the gay community but minority communities across the U.S., whole countries in Eastern Europe and Asia, and the entire continent of Africa. Yet the sense of urgency about this catastrophe seems to have lessened. “I think it’s been put behind us in many ways, at least in our minds,” said Holleran during the interview. “Generations have grown up with it now, people who’ve lived with it ever since they were conscious. Not enough is being written about it.”
That may be one reason Holleran is currently working on a new volume of essays about AIDS, to be titled Sheridan Square, due out early next year from Da Capo, intended as an update on his experience of AIDS. It’s a way of focusing attention again on a plague that never seems to end.
No end in sight, and Ground Zero in regard to AIDS expanding into ever new populations around the globe: These sobering facts hardly conjure up visions of a park full of tulips on a beautiful spring day, just as the loveliness of the park that spring day when the interview with Andrew Holleran took place gave no hint of the medical storm which a quarter-century before had destroyed the lives of so many thousands of gay men living less than a mile away. Focusing attention on AIDS again, it’s clear, is precisely what’s needed these days, even if for a few minutes we find ourselves taking a break, entranced by the charm of spring flowers in full bloom.
Lester Strong is Special Projects Editor of A&U.