n a sweltering July day, I meet Sarah Schulman to talk about her new book, Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP NY, 1987–1993 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). It is a large book, done on a large scale. It is not, however, an encyclopedia. Every part of the subtitle matters, from the indefinite article “a” to the terminal date “1993.”
The primary material for Schulman’s book is the ACT UP Oral History Project, a series of nearly 200 interviews she and filmmaker Jim Hubbard conducted from 2001 to 2018 with surviving members of ACT UP. Let the Record Show is necessarily a choric work, layered with voices (including the author’s). This quality makes the work difficult to capture in summaries, reviews, interviews—which perhaps explains why commentaries so far have concentrated largely on, and quoted almost exclusively from, the Preface and Introduction, a non-narrative distillation in which Schulman outlines her intent, method, structure.
Schulman has the calmness and easy eloquence of someone who’s been interviewed many times. (I apologize, twice, about potentially asking a few bog standard questions for which—as the record shows—the response could simply be “Asked and answered!” She smiles and says, “I’m a professional” the first time, and “It is what it is” the second.) Along with this comes an Erin Brokovich-like capacity for recalling details about the dozens of people she writes about.
This is not at all to say that her tone is one of polite urbanity or that her conversation is passionless recitation. Moments of shaking-my-head exasperation, combative bewilderment, constantly shine through. Schulman is not given to self-deprecation, and she is unflinching when it comes to defending her historiographical practice.
Before we start the interview, I give her a copy of A&U’s August 2000 issue (Kevin Bacon is on the cover), in which she had been featured: an extract from her novel, The Child, and an interview about writing lesbian fiction in the age of protease inhibitors. As she pockets the magazine she says wryly, “These photographs look familiar. I haven’t made a lot of money in the last twenty years. I still live in the same rented sixth-floor walkup.”
The following extracts have been edited for lenghth and clarity.
Jay Vithalani: First things first—congratulations! Let the Record Show is your twentieth book. And it has received a great deal of attention and praise.
Sarah Schulman: Thank you!
You’ve been writing about AIDS for a long time now, nearly forty years. How did that come about?
I started working for a series of gay underground newspapers in the late seventies. These were gay and feminist papers that the mainstream ignored completely, and I was a girl reporter, twenty-three or twenty-four.
The identification of what we eventually called AIDS began in 1981. I started writing about AIDS because that is what was happening. I covered pediatric AIDS, women being excluded from experimental drug trials, homeless people with AIDS. By the time ACT UP was founded in March 1987, I had been writing about AIDS for about five years.
After I left ACT UP in mid-1992, I continued to write about AIDS. I wrote a book about gentrification, the relationship between AIDS and gentrification. I covered HIV criminalization. In 2001 Jim Hubbard and I started the ACT UP Oral History Project. So, I never stopped. I’ve spent my entire writing life writing about AIDS. But it’s not the center issue for me, it’s a side thing.
Now, that’s really interesting. You’ve never stopped writing about AIDS. Let the Record Show has been called—some quotes from the dustjacket—“a definitive and monumental history” (Michelangelo Signorile), “a masterpiece of historical research and intellectual analysis” (Alexander Chee), “epic, important, and moving” (Eve Ensler). And yet it’s not a central preoccupation?
A lot things I say in Let the Record Show are things I’ve been saying for decades. It’s about men, it gets a better publisher, it gets more attention, I get a higher level of access, and people now respond, “You’re so smart!” Some of the ideas are not even my ideas, these are the ideas of a whole community.
How does this relate to your cultural and political criticism, as well as your fiction?
Because I’m a novelist, I know how to tell a story that works cumulatively and a lot of nonfiction writers don’t know how to do that. I’m able to build the information, and that’s why it’s readable. I have the skill to do something that’s in a horizontal structure.
However, emotionally and artistically it’s a lesser project, because I’m not looking into my soul to produce an idea. My job is to represent other people in a way that is accurate to who they are and what they say about themselves. There are a lot of people in the book I don’t like, don’t agree with. But I don’t think you could tell which ones, because I think I was very fair. And that was my job. Let the Record Show is really not about me, and the other books are. I don’t even remember writing this book.
Wait—you don’t remember writing this book? It sprang from your head like Minerva?
One memory: I was at MacDowell and I remember looking at the printer. But I don’t remember struggling. Because I had the original material and then I did a sort of mathematical cohering of what was in that material. I found the structure for it. But it’s all about facilitating other people and so it’s not as difficult in some ways.
You give voice—many of the actual words in the book are not yours, they’re words you’ve preserved—to a motley crew.
It’s a very special group of people. They’re highly individuated. They disagree about a lot of things and tell the stories very differently. And that’s the reality, that’s the history. That’s the part you can only show, you can’t just say it. The reader has to experience that. You know how, when you take a creative writing class and they say, “Show, don’t tell”? The reader really has to inhabit all the contradictions, as they’re reading, to understand what the group relationship was like.
But ACT UP activists are also normal people. They are not “clean” people. And normal people can change the world, and that’s very important to know. You don’t have to be a saint. It’s also very important to say when you were wrong. Very, very important. And people make mistakes all the time and people are wrong all the time.
In the Introduction you say that one uniting feature of ACT UP members was characterological. Could you tell me a little bit about that?
When Jim Hubbard and I started the Oral History Project, one of our big questions was “What do these people have in common?” At first we thought it was going to be experiential. If you analyze the questions over the years, they change. In the first three years I asked, “Did your family go to church? Were they community oriented?” I was trying to find that kind of pattern. But it wasn’t true and we had to drop it.
Then we thought maybe everybody had some foundational AIDS experience. And they didn’t. People who didn’t know anybody with AIDS came to ACT UP. After about seven years I finally realized it was a type of person, the kind of person who couldn’t be a bystander, that it was characterological. It took a long time to figure that out.
One way to read the book is as a counternarrative to David France‘s How to Survive a Plague. Much has been made of that.
But it’s not only that. It’s part of a larger problem. For example, when I wrote an article for T Magazine, the gay male editor changed “ACT UP” to “Larry Kramer’s ACT UP.” It’s an American thing. Now we have the mythologizing of Anthony Fauci—there’s always a white man who’s going to save everybody. And David did that too, and other people do that. But nothing works that way, it’s not accurate.
Related to this, the reaction that there is a distortive recentering or overrepresentation in your account?
I don’t agree that I recenter, I think that’s inaccurate. People say, “Oh, you’ve foregrounded women and people of color.” I did not. I just said what they did. If you just say what people in ACT UP did, you get this very diverse, complex spread; and if you hide what they did and only show five people, it’s not accurate. I don’t think that I overrepresented anybody. Most of the people in my book are white men who’ve never been historicized before.
Turning to accuracy and inaccuracy. Ben Ryan, in his review of the book in The Guardian, has said that you can be cavalier with facts. How do you respond to claims that you’ve made factual errors?
Let me first say that I’ve had many book reviews, I’ve written twenty books, I’ve had hundreds and hundreds of reviews, and very few reviewers actually see the book the way I see it, whether it’s praise or criticism. The most helpful review I’ve ever had was a critical review by Vivian Gornick of Rat Bohemia, where she said that these people are not bohemians, because bohemians choose to opt out of bourgeois life, and these people were thrown out. And I thought, “Wow, that’s right.” I learned a lot from that.
My book is an oral history. What oral history “proves” is that this is what people say about their experience. It doesn’t even prove that this is really what they think about their experience. So, it’s simply a record of what they say about it. It can seem nothing more than that, but when it’s a critical mass—in this case I think there are 140 people I use in the text—you really start to see dimensions and shapes and patterns. And that’s revealing, it’s larger than anything one person says. You don’t fact-check oral history. Because it’s not fact. It’s only the fact that the people who lived the history said that. Oral histories are not new, they’re not controversial.
Ben was very odd. He called at least five people in ACT UP to claim that I did not do fact checking. Primarily, he seems to not understand what oral history is. Clearly, it reveals disagreements, contradictions and the fact that there is no single truth. Why he could not comprehend this is unclear to me.
You wrote an opinion piece for The Guardian which received some pushback from two prominent gay British activists, which then got amplified on social media.
All right, tell me why that’s crazy.
These men are saying that I was writing gay men out of AIDS history? That is not an accurate representation of what I’m doing. I think that it’s some kind of kneejerk sexism. “You’re going to take something away from us.” I’m actually affirming them. They’re just so sexist they can’t just let it happen. Too bad for them. Hopefully, they’ll read the book and they can send me an apology. The book is mostly about gay men.
So the issue now is that of “erasure.” Michael Specter in The New Yorker suggests there is erasive vein in the book.
Michael Specter is gatekeeping. I mean, it’s sad. The New York Times allowed the book to be seen for what it is, New York Magazine allowed that. But the last bastion, where white straight men are in control, is The New Yorker. When David Remnick [editor of The New Yorker] interviewed me, he was all about Tony Kushner, Anthony Fauci, Larry Kramer. He didn’t mention any of the 140 people who the book is about. The gatekeepers are so afraid they’re going to lose the sense of themselves as objective and neutral. And heroes of the world. Specter says I’m wrong. It was a little group of five men who did everything. And actually, “No, you’re wrong!”
The title of the review in the Times Literary Supplement, “Kramer vs America,” is a faux pas, I think.
Regarding the TLS, as many people have pointed out, the reviewer [Omar G. Encarnación] clearly did not read the book, because the claims he makes in his opening paragraphs are refuted as early as the Introduction in Let the Record Show. It’s hard for reviewers to complete a 700-page book, but when they agree to review it they are promising to do so.
I’m going to shift gears a little bit. A TV series based on Let the Record Show is in the works, with Andrew Haigh as director and showrunner—exciting news! Tell us about that project?
I was approached by Christine Vachon, a major player in world cinema, and a former member of ACT UP. Her partner, Marlene McCarty, was the only woman in Gran Fury [an artist collective of AIDS activists, 1988–1995]. The chance of having a woman producer who was in ACT UP means that the chances of the show being authentic are much higher. Christine brought in Jonathan King, who had done When They See Us on TV. He also did Spotlight. So here’s someone who has a lot of experience bringing social justice stories to the screen at a very high level. The combination seemed perfect. Then we had to get a writer. We sent out the material to a lot of writers. And, really, everybody was afraid of it.
Any names you can mention?
No. But I would say probably about twenty writers. TV writers aren’t political. This is also formally complex, it’s not about five people on a journey, it’s about a community. And unless you count Game of Thrones, there aren’t many models for that. Andrew really wanted to do it. So I started looking at the history of his work. It’s very classy. Weekend is a classic, and it’s very relational. Andrew reveals social realities through intimate relationships. Then he turns around and does 45 Years, with Charlotte Rampling, and gets an Oscar nomination. He also did the HBO series, Looking. He has a very wide palate. So it seemed like a really good match. We’ll see. He hasn’t finished the pitch yet, so it hasn’t been put up for sale yet. I don’t have a sense of a timeline.
When the manuscript was finished was there a bittersweet moment? Letting go?
I don’t think so, no. When a book of mine is printed I read it again, then I never read it again.
That’s very Elizabeth Bishop.
Very Elizabeth Bishop?
Yeah, that’s what she said about her poems. Once she finished writing and revising and publishing them, they were finished objects, done.
I hope I don’t end up like Elizabeth Bishop, she had a terrible ending. She drank herself to death.
I doubt that’s what is going to happen to you. But what’s next for Sarah Schulman?
Oh, a lot. I have a new novel, a lesbian novel. I’ve finished a movie script about Carson McCullers. A young director has taken a shopping agreement on it and it’s being packaged by her apparatus. I have a bunch of plays that I’ve been trying to get produced for years—still trying. I’ve also been working with Marianne Faithfull for the last number of years.
It sounds like you’re a workaholic.
Well, with so many projects going on at once, some finished, some simmering on the back burner, others being conceived right now.
I don’t think I’m a workaholic. I think that a lot of my work doesn’t get to see the light of day. I have to fight for it for years and years and years. I also think that writing is very easy for me. So, in that sense I don’t have to be a workaholic.
But you are going on a much-deserved vacation soon, yes?
Yes, to Hudson Valley and Provincetown with my girlfriend. Counting the days!
For more information about the photography of Stephen Churchill Downes, visit: stephenchurchilldownes.com.
Jay Vithalani grew up in Mumbai, India. He studied English and philosophy at Amherst College and Harvard University, and has also done graduate work at the University of Iowa and Boston University. Vithalani is the co-author of a book of industrial history, Horizons: The Tata-India Century. He currently lives in New York City. Vithalani has been living with HIV since 2005. He is the Nonfiction Editor of A&U.