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Tim Murphy: On His New Book, HIV/AIDS, and How Scruff is a Kinder Place Than AOL Profiles

Tim Murphy: On His New Book, HIV/AIDS, and How Scruff is a Kinder Place Than AOL Profiles

Author: Theodore Kerr

August 6, 2016

“AIDS is like a prism through which all these social pathologies like poverty, homophobia, sexism and racism are refracted. It can be daunting to try and capture all of that.”

“Time is not a line” is one of the many take-aways from writer Tim Murphy’s third novel, Christodora. Set primarily in New York, the book buckles and breaks in nonlinear fashion over five decades through the lives of a community of people brought together and torn apart by “mental illness, addiction and HIV/AIDS,” what Murphy calls the three shadows of his life.

In the interview below with writer and organizer Theodore Kerr, Murphy talks about those shadows, what it was to embrace fiction after questioning the need to make up stories in a world filled with extreme drama, and how much things have changed since his last novel, both for him and for the world in general.

Christodora is not your first novel.

Everyone thinks it is. But actually I wrote two novels in my late 20s, Getting Off Clean, then The Breeders Box. The first one was well-received, then the second one was only published in the UK and got lost in the ether. I had a severe and sustained depression after that—not because of the book, but that didn’t help. I was hospitalized twice in two years. People don’t realize how exhausting it is to be depressed. In Christodora, when Ava talks about feeling like she is living her life in a soup of medications, that was taken from that period in my life.

Was much of the book taken from your life?

My life informed how I understood what the characters were going through. For example, when I was still only semi-treated for depression, around 1998, I hooked up with a guy who suggested we do crystal meth and I remember thinking that I shouldn’t fuck with the medications I was taking for my head. But he insisted that I would be fine. So we did it and I felt great for the first time in two years. The drugs were like the meds I had been looking for. But it didn’t last. I bottomed out around 9/11. I left New York and went into a recovery halfway house in Boston where I was almost the only person there not coming from prison and mandated to be there by the courts. So a lot of Mateo’s inner life in the book when he is first trying to get clean comes from that period in my life; that sense of ambivalence around being sober, the way it feels boring, that sense that you are helpless, just waiting for the next relapse. This was how I felt for three years until one day I had a realization. I was 32 and it had become clear I had taken the career of an addict as far as I could. I had no money, no apartment of my own, a $12/hr job, and I wasn’t really writing. I thought, there has to be more to life than this. And in retrospect, I realize now much more than I did then how much privilege and resources I had to draw on to make that decision. At the time I really thought it was all my own inner resolve, which it was to an extent, but with much more material support than I think I realized at the time.

What was your writing life before this moment?

In 1994, someone I went to college with, a playwright named John Russell, who died of AIDS. But I’d just moved to New York and actually at that time knew only a few people living with HIV. I was young, just a few years out of college. I was extremely scared of AIDS and even of gay activism but I felt like I really needed to understand and confront this sickness that was the main definer of my generation of gay men, so I decided to do it through reporting and writing. The pre-protease years of the early and mid-90s were a very dark time, with AIDS mortalities peaking. The golden age of ACT UP was over, and activism had changed: it was more about the fact that the Clintons were in, and a handful of extremely fluent activists were working with government and with the drug makers. Things got professionalized.

Around this time I started writing the “Living with AIDS” column for GMHC’s magazine, The Volunteer. They would send me around to interview people. The first assignment was way out in Queens, I think Corona, a really tough white biker grandmother and her Latino seven-year-old grandson who was living with AIDS, and whose mother had already died of it. She told me about the ice baths she would immerse him in when his fevers spiked. And that beautiful little boy did indeed die shortly after that. I ended up doing a lot of interviews, everyone from the HIV+ Republican AIDS activist Mary Fisher to a man blinded by CMV living alone in his Upper West Side studio with his piano. That writing led to my activist-writer friend Tim Horn getting me gigs writing about treatment, just as protease inhibitors came on the scene in the late 90s.

A few years later when I was in Boston, having hit rock-bottom and slowly trying to climb out, I got an email from Walter Armstrong at POZ magazine, which I had written for a little bit, asking if I wanted to come be a features editor there. I was so excited about the offer I almost left Boston that night, which would have been typical of me. But I had the presence of mind to ask if he could wait another month so I could get my bearings. He said yes and I really have to thank him, and to everyone at POZ, for giving a girl a break, ha! And opening up a new world of genuine reporting for me.

I remember sitting beside Esther Kaplan, a great reporter who would listen to me on calls and give me tips on what to ask, what not to say, and how to listen. After a few years there I left to be the advocacy writer at Housing Works, an agency I love, but I also learned there that I was a writer and reporter before I was an activist, so I took the leap and went freelance. I wanted to write at a high level, like for The New York Times, New York Magazine, and places like that. And I have.

But during this whole time I just could not write fiction. I would try and simply not be able to feel it. I remember standing in The Strand sometime in the early or mid 2000s, looking at all the novels, wondering why people wasted their time making stuff up with everything real going on around us. A few people had suggested I should try to write some kind of a memoir about the depressed and druggy dark years. I tried, but it was a mess. I couldn’t really remember anything—but my friends could. They would tell me things from the past which were very upsetting to hear, like when I had been completely cuckoo. And I found the writing boring. I didn’t want to write a memoir. I wanted to take that raw lived experience and also the broader experience of living in New York through the era of AIDS and transfer it to a bigger canvas.

So the moratorium on fiction lifted.

Sure. That was how it started, with a sort of lump in my heart. I did not have an idea for a full book, but I knew I wanted to write about mental illness, addiction and HIV/AIDS—the three shadows that have shaped my life.

I began by writing a long short story which looks a lot like the first chapter of the book. I had this idea to write a collection of linked stories called Doing Drugs. They would run the gamut from hard drugs to people in the middle of bipolar episodes. That idea evolved and I found myself writing my third novel. But this time it was different. With the first two, I had created and then followed an outline. I tried to do that again but I couldn’t. It was like filling in a coloring book.

You were a different person.

I was more interested in the process of writing taking me somewhere I didn’t already know. I guess that comes from years of having been a journalist at that point.

I always thought journalists had to be less creative?

I think I became a more empathetic person as a journalist. I went in with a lot of assumptions. I would be in an interview and say, “Oh, so you mean blah blah…” And people would say, “Actually, that’s not what happened or what I meant,” and it would bring me up short. I learned to start with a blank slate: How much can I just keep listening, really hearing them from their side with no biases or assumptions? I think that helped with this book in particular. I thought a lot about all the people I had interviewed and met over two decades. So as I was writing the characters I had to ask myself, are you really listening to them or are you writing your version of this character? In early drafts, friends, like novelist James Hannaham, would offer feedback like, “With Issy, I don’t think I know this woman,” which to me meant I was writing her too much as me. I had to learn to come from behind, visualize sitting on their shoulders. In that early scene with Issy in the club you are not watching from above, you are there with her, close.

And because of this intimacy I knew I didn’t want to abruptly kill or demonize anyone in the book that the reader was going to get close to.

This comes through in how you handle drugs. Recovery, for example, is a possibility, but it’s not mandated.

I think some people relapse because of the fatalism, the feeling that you don’t have the energy to keep up sobriety. Getting sober is so emotionally exhausting at the beginning. Everything is an ordeal. You have forgotten how to have a normal interaction with people, how to organize your day—if you ever knew any of these things.

You get a sense of this in the two chapters where Mateo relapses, through both his and Hector’s eyes. You start with Mateo and then when the scene picks up in the next chapter, it’s Hector. From there I slow it down. I wanted to capture the entire arc of a relapse: moving towards the drugs, pushing aside misgivings, especially when connecting with someone else. Then the relief, it can feel so good to be high again. And finally—and I really tried to capture this—the terror: when you do too much, or the wrong combo, or when everything is so out of control you don’t know how it is going to end. And then the crash, which is a nightmare.

When I wrote those chapters I had already been sober for a while but I wanted to capture it in real time. I didn’t get high, but in my head I did. I even went to 12-step meetings while writing those pages. I was a wreck that weekend. But I stuck with it. I wanted the reader to be there for it during every terrifying second.

It comes though. Your use of time throughout the book is remarkable.

Living in New York for 25 years, the city becomes like a palimpsest. You are walking down a certain block and suddenly it is 1994 and you are remembering a friend who is gone, but not fully gone. The past is always throwing a shadow on the present. I wanted the book to catch that sense of elegy, that feeling of already knowing what has happened to someone. “Part One” ends in the summer of 1989, an optimistic moment for activists. They had a huge triumphant upset in Montreal, and there were breakthroughs coming for patients in the drug studies, and a second AIDS drug on the way. But on the page, even as you are reading—and Hector relaxes—you know what will happen. I wanted the present and the past to keep bleeding into each other.

Are there positive aspects of what the past can do for the present?

We have had a few great movements in America: the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, gay rights, and AIDS activism. And obviously with all of them, and specifically with the last two, there has been overlap. But when it comes to AIDS, the movement has been so under-memorialized. It is heartbreaking because so many amazing people have died and then have been disappeared. Google Katrina Haslip, a fierce AIDS activist who died in 1992. There is relatively little about her online.

But beyond that, what I wanted to get through in the book is that if you have one heroic chapter in your life, that is enough. That is why remembering the past is important. We need to have a collective record of the good deeds we have done. In the book, I don’t think Hector needs to fully recover or get back his old mojo necessarily. Not every life has to be an endless series of heroic moments. Life goes up and down. What we often fail to factor into our stories about the past is that people pay a price for being the hero.

You capture the price of AIDS on the gay psyche through Hector in a way that has not been done before.  If we look at the majority of the books and movies coming out about the early responses to HIV, all want to keep gay men as heroes and in isolation. They don’t seem interested or able to explore the idea that we are just one important group within a larger community. 

Because of this we can see Hector’s struggles in context. A big price being paid among long-term survivors is mental health. I had to take a break while reading the Hector sections because not only was I in love with him, he also reminds me of many of the men I know in New York. Many of them are in rent-controlled apartments in areas they can’t afford anymore and no longer feel welcome in. They moved here 30 years ago thinking their life was just about to begin, then quickly found themselves on the front line of a movement that involved them saving their own lives and the lives of those around them. It was not what they signed up for. Years later, they are traumatized and isolated.

I love Hector. He reminds me of guys ten years older than me, many of whom I met when I was using. Talking to them, I realized that many of the guys who were heavily involved in AIDS work earlier than me, were now the ones doing drugs. The book is a love letter to them. But not just them. It is also about someone like Milly, who reminds me of the young women I went to school with: privileged and kind of sheltered, but curious and wanting to do good. The big ACT UP scene starts with Milly walking through the Village, musing about her collegiate romantic problems. She sees Hector and his boyfriend kissing. Hector turns, sees Milly, they talk and walk together or a bit, and then we see the rest of the scene through his eyes. I love that the book keeping turning its prisms. I wanted to write a book that reflects twenty-five years of living in a city where lives are always overlapping.

But I am still thinking of your question: What do you think is the positive side of the past?

A positive aspect of the past is that once happened, it has the capacity to be remembered. This is not a promise always fulfilled, but is a possibility that can always come to fruition. Seeing people my age and younger dive into early AIDS narratives has been amazing. It has lead to cross-generational friendship, mentorship and lovemaking. Re-energized attention on the past has resulted in new projects coming out that are informed by both the past and the present; and it has lead people living with HIV now to assert that their lived experience matters as much as those being historicized.

What I like about your book is that it is a world of worlds impacts by drugs, New York City and HIV/AIDS. By writing fiction and writing how you did, you are pushing against narratives that want to oversimplify the story of AIDS in the US. A life like Issy’s, for example, is almost never told. We get a much bigger story of AIDS than we do if we just take in the big exhibitions or watch the big feature films and documentaries.

I really wanted to write about women with AIDS; the role of women in the AIDS movement. And that is partly a credit to my former colleagues at POZ, Esther Kaplan and Laura Whitehorn and Cindra Feuer, and to all the women I interviewed and all the women who were involved with HIV/AIDS for whatever reason. Like all the women involved in getting the federal definition of AIDS expanded to include women’s symptoms in the early 1990s.

I always wonder why there is not yet a movie about that yet. The story starts with Black women living with HIV in prison advocating for themselves and others, and at a climax finds women and men, across the HIV spectrum, protesting in the pouring rain together, speaking truth to power outside the CDC. And they won!

AIDS is like a prism through which all these social pathologies like poverty, homophobia, sexism and racism are refracted. It can be daunting to try and capture all of that. I actually feel like the TV show Orange is the New Black has done that to some extent, even though at times to me it has felt like it was trivializing the truly shameful American trend of over-incarceration, of making it look like fun girls’ camp or high school.

Speaking of that, how was it to write these characters as neither a woman or a Latino man?

The characters are composites of people I know, many of whom I really love and admire, so I had that as a guide. But of course the only head you can really get into is your own. So it was a balance of knowing who I know and knowing that there is some aspect of my life in every one of the characters—be it mental illness or dealing with HIV-related stigma—and respecting that the characters exist unto themselves. There were times where I felt I should not be writing Issy and Mateo because of the idea that white people should not write non-white characters. Yet I also adamantly didn’t want to write another AIDS book all about white gay men. That was not my experience in my life or in my work. So I went for it, treading very lightly in terms of adding in bits of Jewish or Dominican or Puerto Rican culture, because a little can go a long way. And as I was writing, I would send it to friends and get feedback, then incorporate that.

Right, and yet you can’t write about AIDS in the USA and not talk about the homosexual experience.

There has never been a moment in my life since I was about twelve when being gay was uncoupled from HIV/AIDS, the fear of death, sickness, ostracization, and I think that shaped my generation of gay men often in a really sad and neurotic way. I am 47. If I could go back and show you AOL profiles from the late 1990s: how hostile they were, full of phobias, and rigid requirements around masculinity, race, HIV status. They were devoid of humanity. They showed how profoundly gay men had been denied the experience of just knowing intimacy and fun. Then when I look on Scruff, there is often such a spirit of sweetness and playfulness among gay men in their 20s and 30s, gay men allowing themselves to be dorky and femme-y or what have you. It is mind-blowing. I love that I have been alive long enough to see the other end of this, a different kind of energy.

Even amid the racism, body fascism and HIV-phobia that still exists on apps?

Yes, it still exists. But in the past, no one would have ever written a profile that began with, “If you are one of those guys with hang-ups about race, HIV status or body types, then I don’t want to talk to you.” Gay men are coming out from under a dark cloud and, I think, evolving along with the broader culture around race and gender, especially millennials.

And yet I think that cloud still hovers. You have written about PrEP, which, aside from being a biomedical HIV prevention method, seems to me to also be a mental-health drug, to help reduce anxiety around the risk of getting HIV during sex. So while I agree that things have changed for the better for many people, there are still fundamental issues around stigma and discrimination.

The late 1990s and into the 2000s was weird. Just because the meds were released didn’t mean the crisis was over. For one, the meds did not work for everyone. As you know, it was not until mid-2000s that a new wave of powerful new drugs came online and stabilized more folks than before. Around this time we also saw a surge in drug use, which I think of as a collective PTSD instinct kicking in, now that more of us were living longer.  I was diagnosed in 2001 and because I worked in the field and knew there were good treatment options by then, I never worried that I would get sick from AIDS. One of my best friends was diagnosed in 1993 and I remember he felt like he was going to die. I remember telling him, “Don’t be ridiculous,” but honestly, I worried about the same thing. (He’s fine.) Things changed. It wasn’t until well after the shocks of 9/11 and of our own ongoing existence that we could talk about how scared we still were, and—soon enough, not to forget—we began to talk about what being HIV undetectable meant, and then gay marriage. Based on what we went through, we knew that if the gay lobby put gay marriage before national anti-discrimination protection, then the most vulnerable queer people in the most vulnerable states would feel a backlash–and that is exactly what is happening now.

As Shirley Bassey sang, Its all just all a little bit of history repeating itself.

And yet despite all this, I feel lucky to have lived in NYC during this time. I’ve witnessed us come through the worst and I continue to witness us evolve on a number of issues. I don’t want to say it is a utopia, I want to say that it is a story in flux.

Theodore Kerr photo

About: Theodore Kerr

Edmonton born Theodore Kerr is a Brooklyn based writer and organizer. For ten years he has been working at the intersection of art, AIDS and activism. He was the programs manager at Visual AIDS. Currently Kerr is doing his graduate work at Union Theological Seminary.

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