larry

By Curt Weber

Where does one begin with the man who was at the forefront of the fight to control and diminish one of the greatest contemporary health catastrophes this country, and the world, has seen–a disease infecting over 65 million people, 25 million of whom have died?

Larry Kramer’s career moved from the movie industry, where he was nominated for an Academy Award for his script adaptation of Women in Love, to “gay cancer” activist in the early 1980s.  He was one of the loudest voices warning about the plague that AIDS would become, rallying support to fight the drug companies for better drugs and for gays to be heard in politics and everyday life. Kramer’s tactics polarised and angered many, but helped bring about sweeping change.

I had seen him interviewed, and in footage on television, and had read his works, but even though I have lived in New York City for ten years I had never seen him in person until this past May, when he was honoured by the LAMBDA Literary Foundation at their annual award gala. This somewhat frail, soft spoken, gentle-looking man stood at the podium and thanked his hosts for recognising his writing and for being called “literary”, adding “no one ever notices what I write, only what I say.”  I was surprised by how humble he seemed, how soft-spoken and unassuming.  Not at all like the picture I had in my mind.

No one ever notices what I write, only what I say–that might change, when his new novel, The American People is published. He feels that people get “too fucking wrapped up in objecting to [his] content” and pay little attention to how he writes, the “writing itself.” The novel is sure to cause a whole new type of firestorm. The American People is an expansive 4000-page tome, which Kramer is still in the process of editing, that re-examines American history and the vital, yet often dismissed, role gay people had in shaping it. He calls it “ the saddest story anyone should ever have to write, or read,” as it also deal with the history of the plague of AIDS that ahs devastated us all. For Larry, this new book offers a much-needed corrective: American history is gay history–the novel reportedly provides substantial evidence that both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were gay.

Before I interviewed him, I was warned of his venom and anger. The man I saw give that recent speech could not be all that terrifying, and thankfully he wasn’t. I arrived at his apartment off Washington Square Park on a beautifully clear Friday evening in early June. He was warm and gracious, inviting me into his stylish apartment–where GMHC, the originally titled Gay Men’s Health Crisis, was formed. It is loaded with books of course, lots of light, and a cute, small, yapping white dog.  His fingers and wrists are weighted with variously sized, but all substantial, pieces or turquoise, set in rings and bracelets which he, like the Native Americans, believes helps to protect his health.

From where we sat, his grand, writing desk was positioned before us, a stack of A4, printed paper, over a foot high rested near the edge. I assumed it to be the manuscript for The American People.

You write, “We cannot move forward without accepting and understanding our past. Gay men have the greatest difficulty in moving forward”.  Is The American People an attempt not only to understand the past for yourself, but to help us usher in a new understanding of ourselves and, in turn, grow?
You make it sound so grand and noble. Every writer writes with that intention, of trying to find out what he or she is thinking, and you find out as you write. I wanted to write about a history of the gay people in America from the beginning, and I mean from the very beginning, from the monkeys in the jungles, because I believe we have been here from the beginning.

Do you mean pre-colonization?
Yes, because there were people here for eons before they colonized the colonies. So much of America has been homosexual and so many of the great people have been gay.  Whether anybody admitted it or not is beside the point. They were! And yes, I do think we have to learn our history, as it’s not taught anywhere.  A lot of ‘queer studies’ is taught, a lot of ‘gender studies’ is taught but not ‘gay history.’

What is your idea of ‘gay history’?
By gay history I mean that Abraham Lincoln was gay. George Washington was gay, and how does that effect how the country came to be. The fact that Washington was gay affected how he thought, and legislation, and how he voted on certain issues. He was very much in love with Alexander Hamilton, who loved him back, and was the man who created all the legislation in the government. The fact that they were lovers is a lot different than if it were Obama and Rahm Emanuel, let’s say. It’s important we know that! And schools for whatever reason won’t teach it.

I understand that the 4000 pages of The American People will include your previous novels Faggots and your play The Normal Heart. How did you make them fit into the book?
The book is a novel. I discovered I had been writing one story all my life. I basically wrote about what was happening to me at certain points in my life. Faggots was written in the heyday of the late 70s, the disco era and all that. Pre-AIDS. And The Normal Heart was written after. It’s all part of a continuing history that gay people have read. I have some other plays that also fit in chronologically with that. I haven’t used them all, but I used most of Faggots, not all, and for The Normal Heart I am using the screenplay, not the play. The screenplay is much bigger, fuller, with more characters.

Did you adapt the screenplay for the Normal Heart?

Yes. It’s going to be filmed. It’s being cast right now.

What portion of The American People is history pre-1900 and what portion in post 60s?
It’s going to come out in two volumes and the first volume will end somewhere at the end of ‘Faggots’ or at the end of ‘The Normal Heart’. And the second half, equally as long, will be from 1980 until now. The American People is also the history of AIDS. I don’t think anyone has been on the frontline as long as I have, who is still alive. As I said in the speech I made at LAMBDA, I almost feel I have to tell the story because I am the only one left alive to tell it. AIDS was allowed to happen, intentionally, I believe, by any number of people. And that has never been said before.

So it’s pre-AIDS, and post-AIDS. You consider yourself a political writer. Do you have a line that divides between political writing that is art versus political writing that is agitprop?
These are all very loaded words. Everybody is a political writer if you write about yourself. You’re a person who has ideas and ideas are politics. The politics of our lives interest us and interest me and I’m sorry when people don’t write about it. I write about what interests me and what makes me angry, mostly. Everybody should consider themselves a political writer and we shouldn’t have those labels. The trouble with this country is that we put labels on our writers. He’s a political writer, or she’s a feminist writer blah blah blah. There is nothing wrong with that, but it shouldn’t exclude that you have a personality above and beyond that. This country does not allow much leeway for writers to write about politics. People who write about politics are not taken as seriously as they are in Germany, say, or Brazil.

You touched upon that in your speech at LAMBDA.
It’s true there are a lot of great writers: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes. They all write about politics.

Are there any women in history that are included in The American People?
I hope so or the women would come after me!

Whose work do you like?
One educates oneself as one goes along. One loves F. Scott Fitzgerald when one is 25. I read a lot of Roberto Bolano, who I was most impressed with. He’s a very important writer. Hannah Arendt is still very important. She’s a political philosopher, I guess, she certainly wasn’t a novelist. She was German and she wrote about Eichmann in Jerusalem, her most famous book, which was originally written for the New Yorker. She covered that trial and she believed the Jews were partly responsible for their own extermination because they didn’t fight back. I talk about that in terms of gay people. Not that we get what we deserve, because nobody deserves what we got, but that we are certainly implicit in our own situation, and that we are docile and timid and closeted.

You said you write about what you are angry or excited about. So what inspires you to write?
Anger has a lot to do with it. I am in love with language so I play with words a lot. It’s almost as if humour and anger go easily hand in hand. It’s not unmitigated.

I know you were, or are, friendly with her, but are you frustrated at the fact that Barbra Streisand held the rights for The Normal Heart for so long [he chuckles] and that nothing came of it? We may have missed a crucial time to bring it to the screen.
It’s a long story. We opened in New York first in 1985, then in Los Angeles in 1986, and she saw the production there starring Richard Dreyfuss and Kathy Bates. She loved it, so she bought it. If she had made it then it could have gone out and been a very useful tool, very early, in the world. But she kept . . . she had it for ten years and I must have written a dozen screenplays for her. Something else would come up, and she kept not doing it. After a while I almost didn’t want her to do it, but the fact that she was still out there talking about it, and no-one else had come along to make me another offer, I figured, okay she is keeping it alive in the eyes of the world, which was valuable. The longer I got to know her and work with her, the more I realized that she hasn’t the slightest idea of what it is like to be gay–even though she has a gay son. A gay son who is now HIV+, as a matter of fact, and I didn’t want her to do it. I am happy she kept it alive. I am thrilled she is not making it, and it was a complicated relationship.

Is it a big-screen adaptation or something for cable?

Hell no, major stars. Major, big stars.  [Editor’s Note: Mark Ruffalo since became the first big name attached. He will play the lead, Ned Weeks, portrayed on the stage by Richard Dreyfuss and Martin Sheen to name two.] It’s going to be directed by a man called Ryan Murphy, who is the creator . . .

. . . .Yes, Nip/Tuck and Glee

He’s openly gay and he is so excited about this.  He’s really big and he has a big movie with Julia Roberts coming out first. [Editor’s Note: This summer’s Eat, Pray, Love. Murphy has 3 films in development] He’s hot now and he and his agents at CAA, both of whom are openly gay, are unbelievably supportive of this project, unlike Barbra whose agents at CAA tried to talk her out of doing it. A nice change.

That’s exciting. It may take about two years for it to come out, depending on what stage of production they are in, and then the book will come out in that time.
Ahhh, the book. [He sighs.]

I guess you have been writing it for 20 years, so another two is nothing.
It’s hard for me to believe that I am ever going to finish the book.

But you’re done, right?
Nah.

I thought there was a first draft.

Yes, but it’s a first draft. It’s been sold. I have been working on it with Will Schwalbe, who’s an old friend. He has worked with me a long time, and you can only stay fresh on it so long when you are an editor. So we put together 300 pages that were polished up. He showed it to Jonathan Galassi who is the publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which is the best publishing house in the world, and he said, ‘I must have this book!’ Just on 300 pages, he didn’t even read the other twenty-whatever or 3,300, 3,700 pages!

That’s great because I would imagine with the state that the publishing industry is in, that it would be a difficult book to market not just because of the nature of its subject, but its size.
That’s been a subject of ongoing conversation. He wants to bring it out in two volumes separated by a year. I want it to come out all at once, but there is no size that you could hold comfortably in your hand. He doesn’t believe that putting two volumes out at once is a good idea; my concern is more pragmatic. I know that the first volume is due at the end of this year, and I just know that when I go on to the second volume, while the first is already out, that I will want to change things and I won’t be able to. That bothers me. But everyone is being non-dictatorial and relaxed at the moment. I have an incredible editor, four thousand pages is arduous and not easy to edit. I am up to page 100 on the editing process and I don’t know how to edit it by the end of the year, especially if the movie starts being made in the fall or winter. So I take it a day at a time. I also have another play that is being put together.

Is this new?
It’s an old play, called A Minor Dark Age, and it is included in a volume of my work called Women in Love and other Dramatic Writings. It’s a play that has never been done.

You have a lot going on. Is one of your goals with The American People to change gay discourse away from queer theory towards an in-depth examination of gays in history?
Yes, yes, yes! I hate queer studies. I hate queer theory. I hate the word queer. I think it’s so demeaning. It’s like calling it ‘nigger studies’. Or ‘nigger theory’, which is even worse. While it has been entrenched in the academy, I am told that it is slowly weakening and, as these things take a long time, it’s on its way to being less of a forcefully, front-and-centre discipline –queer theory.  Hopefully it will eventually disappear like other theories have.

What are some of the pitfalls of academia being obsessed with theory as opposed to history?
You don’t learn your history! That the greatest president America has ever had, Abraham Lincoln, was gay, is not taught or researched, or not verified or not solidified . . . that’s what historians do! If the material out there isn’t substantial, go back into the library archives and stacks and find what you need, or try to. I have been amazed by, amazed, at what I have been able to find out about gay historical figures, for instance George Washington, that has basically been there all along and nobody has paid attention to it. It exists across the board. It exists for who is gay in Washington D.C now and in the closet, and find out. It’s all about putting two and two together. I discovered that Samuel Clemens, Mark Twain, was gay his entire life. That was from reading all the biographies, putting two and two together, finding out who was around him at all these times, figuring out where he lived, and who he lived with, and what those relationships were like. It’s all there. He was gay and he had gay friends and he lived with gay friends! One reason he chose the name Mark Twain was to hide behind. The problem is that most, all biographies have been written by straight people, so they don’t say, ‘Oh my god what is he doing with Davey and William and all these people for so long?’ If you look you see that not only is he living with them, but he is staying in the same hotel with them, and they are in the same bedroom. Oh, and it’s a four-room house! This shit that Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed, that they slept in the same bed because they couldn’t afford a bigger place, is ludicrous. Joshua Speed was rich!

And it was a small bed you said.

No it was not a small bed, I think once I said it was a small bed, but . . . he was rich. And there was another bed in the same room that other gay friends of Lincoln would use when they would come and stay with them. It’s all there. Doris Goodwin, who is a homophobic woman, is not going to hear of any of this and we are not going to have our historians confront her. That’s another thing, that we don’t have enough trained, gay historians, because up until very recently you couldn’t study anything in school and kids didn’t want it on their records. They didn’t want their parents to know. It’s not as if we have a group of trained experts to send out there in the field. Presumably that’s what they are slowly doing now, but boy is it slow.

When you say it’s all there in regard to Lincoln and Washington, besides biographies, where are you finding your information?

You’d be surprised what people show you. Martin Duberman writes about this, that there are great collections that people have held onto for decades, older people, from their families and slowly it comes to light. People did show me a lot.

We heard of these letters found in the floorboards.

Yes. I had to make a big decision as whether to call this book a history or a novel. I look at it as a history, but I don’t want to prove every fucking thing, so we are calling it a novel.

Is that for legal reasons too?
Well for legal reasons as well, in modern times. But also I don’t want to have to prove everything. I don’t want to have to show these letters, or this diary of Joshua Speed that I was allowed to read because the man in Davenport, Iowa won’t let me have it. I was allowed into his house to read it. People are going to want to know, they will want to see it. Well, it’s not mine to show. Hopefully before he dies or after he dies it will be. But there is a lot of stuff like that. It should not be so important that you have to prove every inch of penis. You don’t have to do that for straight people, you don’t have to prove a person is straight. Why do we have to be put through such agony when you say, ‘George Washington was a big queen’? Which he was.

Well you are destroying a lot of people’s ideas about . . .
Tough shit! They have been destroying my life all along! I get angry. When I get up and say ‘George Washington was a big queen’ everybody laughs and I say, ‘Fuck-you, what’s funny about it?’ It’s just that people are so surprised on some level, because they have bought into one myth for so long.

YOU CAN READ THE THE REST OF THE LARRY KRAMER INTERVIEW BY BUYING THE FALL ISSUE OF MARY.  TO PURCHASE THE ISSUE CLICK HERE.

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