One Building, Many Stories
In a new novel, writer & activist Tim Murphy revisits the early days of AIDS
by John Francis Leonard
Activism, journalism, advocacy, and novel writing, Tim Murphy’s career has run the gamut of the gay man’s experience from the late twentieth century up until today. AIDS treatment and services is where he got his start in the early nineties, writing for such storied organizations as GMHC and Housing Works. He’s dedicated over twenty years to writing about the HIV/AIDS crisis and LGBT issues from the front lines. His journalism has been featured prominently in Out, The Advocate, POZ, the New York Times, and Condé Nast Traveler. His groundbreaking cover story on PrEP for New York magazine was a finalist for a GLAAD Media Award for outstanding journalism.
But Murphy isn’t only a “gay writer,” as evidenced in his skillfully written and highly readable new novel, Christodora (Grove Press). He transcends such labels, writing beautifully of the human condition and on issues that touch many of our lives. Modern-day struggles with addiction, mental illness, as well as the AIDS pandemic, are written about with skill and sensitivity.
Recently, Tim took time to speak to me on the phone, answering my questions about his new book and talking about his long and eventful career as a writer.
John Francis Leonard: Christodora is a novel about New York City, in particular its East Village neighborhood, from the eighties on into the near future. What drew you to this neighborhood and why does it have meaning for you, personally?
Tim Murphy: I guess a few reasons. The East Village has been the site of so much bohemia, so much queer life, and so much activism over the decades. For example, Tompkins Square Park, where Wigstock was originally held. That was a seminal gay cultural event in its time. Then there were certain bars that were gathering places for gay men at the time like Boy Bar, The Boiler Room, and another placed just called The Bar. That was the best place. I spent so much of my time there when I first moved to New York. I always felt that, while the West Village was the “gay mainstream,” the East Village was the the center of alternative gay life. It always had a kind of punk or political edge to it. I didn’t actually live in the neighborhood until much later, but I spent a lot of time there. I also associate it with groups like ACT UP and Queer Nation, [campaigns like] Read My Lips, and so much queer radicalism of the late eighties and early nineties. [Nearby, in the West Village,] ACT UP was launched at the LGBT Community Center. That was where Larry Kramer gave the first gave the first speech [starting] the movement.
Another thing is that when I started the book, I didn’t picture it set in the Christodora building, but in a similar building in the same neighborhood that a friend had lived in. It was maybe a third of the way through the book, that someone reminded me of the riots that took place in Tompkins Square Park in 1988 and how the Christodora was targeted. It made me look twice at the building. I was walking through the park one day, everything snowy and beautiful, and I looked up. I noticed how the building looms over the park like a silent witness, a silent sentinel to the passage of time. The building felt iconic, like it had a God-like quiet, just silently witnessing these events and holding these lives as they play out for better or for worse. And I just like the name Christodora. It is so beautiful, so mysterious and romantic to me.
It’s always fascinating when reading fiction to wonder about what it was in the author’s own experience that inspired it. What inspired you to write Christodora? Were there any people in your life who inspired the characters?
There’s quite a lot in my life that inspired the novel. I had my own personal struggles with mental illness and with addiction. I myself am HIV-positive. I was diagnosed positive in 2001. So a lot of that interior narrative of what all of that was like for me got played out amongst the different characters. I remember having a manic episode that was very similar to Ava’s in the book. It was very much like that, the rush of thoughts and feelings that escalated beyond my control. Then there are the various addiction narratives in the book. Some are taken from my own experience, some from talking to friends, and the hearing of countless people’s stories over the years as a journalist. Living in New York City for the past twenty-five years as a gay man through the AIDS crisis and all the changes it brought about had a lot of bearing. And there too, as a journalist, because I’ve written about AIDS for so long going back to being a volunteer writer for GMHC in the early nineties all the way through writing about more complicated treatment-related issues as in my writing for POZ Magazine. I still write for POZ sometimes.
I came to know so many people through this, some of whom are gone, some of whom have died. Many of them are still alive and they’ve struggled, some having a harder time than others. A lot of them have been living with addiction, depression, or both. Then there are financial troubles. There’s the aftermath of having the prime of your life interrupted by illness and the psychological fear that you’re not going to live that many years, then finding out you are. That’s a real mind fuck. There are all of these layers of human experience that I drew from, some closer to me than others.
We have so much incredible fiction and art representing the AIDS pandemic, but much of it from the earlier days of the crisis comes from a gay white urban middle-class male perspective. The central character in the book that has AIDS is Issy, a Latina. Why was her perspective as a woman of color so important to you?
That character was inspired by so many women with HIV that I’ve known and I just love them all. There’s the women I worked with at Housing Works, where I worked for a while after I left POZ. For a year and a half I was the writer and communications guy for advocacy and activism. At Housing Works a lot of the clients later became employees and volunteers and every day I worked alongside women like Issy. Wonderful women like Nancy Cotto and Julie Peña. And lots more that I met and interviewed working at POZ and going all the way back to GMHC in the early nineties. GMHC had Lesbian AIDS Project…[and] I interviewed Mary Fisher back when I first started writing. From the beginning I was writing about women with HIV and AIDS.
Then there were the black poz women in the South. The part that was different for them, amongst other things, from gay white urban men was that HIV had no context in their lives. It wasn’t like they knew anyone else who had it, who worked in [the AIDS field]….They just lived in shame and silence and stigma. Then ultimately, they couldn’t stand it anymore; they had to talk and connect, reach out to other women living with it and working in it….Once they found community, they often became very political. Once they saw how people need to agitate for their needs and their rights, they became some very fierce warriors. Issy was inspired by all of these women….I didn’t want to write a story only involving gay white men because that wasn’t my experience as a person, an activist, or a journalist.
With your character Hector, you speak to the ramifications of surviving the early days of AIDS. Hector eventually gives up on himself. Hector is a hero in the book, but a very flawed hero. Can you talk a bit about your perspective on “survivor’s guilt”? Did some of your own experiences inform the character?
Hector has survivor’s guilt amongst other things. I think that also Hector experiences a delayed reaction to the crisis, to stress, to grief, and to loss. When [his lover] Ricky dies, he throws himself into activism, and then they win. He throws himself into working toward combination therapy and by ’96 they get it. I think that then, after the adrenaline surge ends, he crashes….There’s that time in ’96 where he says “I want out of this, I’m burnt out.” Those are all conditions—stress, trauma, and loss—are all triggers for some kind of addiction, something to medicate and numb….He finds the perfect drug in crystal meth and he becomes addicted.
I think he’s broken. He pays a price for his activism and in a way, for not fully processing or feeling the loss of Ricky, Issy, and other friends. I feel like that’s something we’ve seen in gay men for the past twenty years when the epidemic quieted down a little bit. It’s kind of a PTSD, a delayed reaction to grief, to loss, to anger, to unfairness about who lived and who didn’t. I think it’s understandable. There are a lot of gay young men for whom this was never a plague, or never took all of their friends and lovers. Suddenly the survivors are watching them all run around on PrEP having a blast like it’s the late seventies again when they, the survivors, have lived through a war. I think there’s a lot of really understandable grief, anger, and resentment that sometimes is more readily addressed or soothed through drugs than going to support groups or therapy. So Hector, to me, has a kind of PTSD. But I just love him, too. You can never take away from Hector what he accomplished and it was so important to me to show that Hector received compassion just as he gives it early on.
What are you working on now? What’s up next for you?
I was working on a new book with about a quarter of it finished but got involved in something else. I don’t know if you’ve heard of us, but I suddenly got very involved with Gays Against Guns. I was probably the fourth or fifth person to sign on in New York and since then, the movement has completely engulfed my life. If you simply Google Gays Against Guns and hit “news,” you’ll see the protests and campaigns that have launched, not only in New York, but all around the country….It’s the three-month anniversary of the Orlando shooting….In just two months we had fully functioning chapters in D.C., L.A., Provincetown, Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago, and Orlando. It’s completely engulfed all our lives. I feel very strongly that the LGBT community should play a role in gun violence prevention. We want to start a fight against the gun lobby that hasn’t existed in that movement yet because it’s been a very polite, inside the beltway movement and we want to bring an ACT UP element of confrontation and anger to it. Do it in a public and theatrical way that hasn’t happened before.
It’s very funny to me that the very kind of activism that I talk about in Christodora in a very nostalgic way, that I wish I had been more a part of, is now such a big part of my life. It’s a very tough nut to crack, the gun industry. Sadly, it does better with every massacre as people believe that Obama is going to take away their guns and they rush out and buy more. It’s a very scary cycle.
John Francis Leonard writes the column Bright Lights, Small City for A&U. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.