TIM MURPHY with Jill Dearman
(Grove Atlantic, 2016)
Tim Murphy is a well-regarded activist and journalist who has covered the AIDS epidemic since the 1990s. His new novel Christodora was recently released by Grove Atlantic to great accolades. He uses the iconic East Village apartment building as the title of his book and the soul at the center of events—the place his characters keep leaving and coming back to as the AIDS saga unfolds around them. For those of us who have come of age in the LGBTQ world of art and activism, Tim is the ultimate insider, and a person we can trust with the epic story of the AIDS crisis. And with his compassionate and funny literary heart, he opens up the story to a new generation who may just be learning about what it was like to be there as friends, lovers. and family members got infected, suffered through agonizing illness, and died every day, while the government stood back and did nothing—for years. It was a dark yet vibrant time when the sick and dying and their loved ones had to fight for treatment and for recognition of the plague that was decimating multiple communities at once. Tim Murphy captures the experience with perfect pitch.
Jill Dearman (Rail): Tim, I just finished reading Christodora and am still reeling. Not only is it epic yet intimate, but it seems impossible that no one else has tackled the AIDS era in a sprawling novel before this! I wonder if, much like the characters in your book, too many of us were traumatized by living through the horror of this long war to look back clearly enough. Have you thought about this?
Murphy: Yes, I have thought about and I think that’s a very real possibility. Think about it: We really did not see an effusion of artistic work about the Holocaust or about Vietnam until a few decades after those traumas had passed, and I do think that when something devastating like the AIDS epidemic occurs, survivors do need years and years to sort of come out of the shellshock and live through the grief, to look back on it and put it in some narrative form. In New York, I think AIDS survivors—whether HIV-positive or not—spent much of the 2000s reeling from the shock of the 1980s and the 1990s. We’d already had works like The Normal Heart or Angels in America that looked at a very heated moment in time in the epidemic, but we needed time to look at the tragedy as a kind of twenty- or twenty-five-year arc.
Rail: I grew up in New York City and have lived here all my life; did you set out to write a NYC-centric book? You really captured the way we natives feel, like this is “our city,” even though we are willing to share it!
Murphy: Yes, I’ve lived here twenty-five years this summer, my whole adult life, and I just wanted to write a book that loved the shit out of this city and that was sort of full of coded little love letters to the dozens or hundreds or thousands of people I’ve know here who have colored my life. I’ve lived stints in other cities in the U.S. and abroad, but I have unabashed chauvinism about New York. I think New Yorkers are the most interesting and biggest-hearted and freaky people in the world, even if New York in recent years has become a bit of a pain in the ass to live in, frankly, with the conspicuous wealth and the construction and the overcrowding.
Rail: How did you first conceive of the novel and what was your writing and editing process like?
Murphy: I did not have a full novel in mind when I started it. I had feelings sitting like a lump in my chest about the toll that AIDS had taken on New Yorkers, on addiction, on mental illness, on the vagaries of family and friendship, on the ever-permutating city, and so I wrote a short story, or maybe a novella, that essentially became the first chapter of the novel. And then I wrote successive chapters thinking that the book would be a collection of loosely linked short stories, but then—rather mysteriously and awesomely for me as a writer—they started knitting together and presenting connections to me that I had not originally conceived of.
Rail: I was struck by how beautifully linked all the pieces of the story fit together, without seeming pat. You really did a great job of making all the connections seem inevitable on an earthy level, but also almost mystical. If I have one spiritual belief it is probably “we are all connected”; the idea that we are separate is an illusion, the same way the parts of our body our all connected as one entity. What was your experience creating such an intricate narrative tapestry?
Murphy: Well, again, the connections among the characters revealed themselves to me, or maybe I should say occurred to me, as I wrote. And often the challenge was to write against what might seem like too-neat coincidences, to render them in the way that they actually happen in real life, which I think they really do, especially if you live in New York City, which just seems to get smaller and smaller and more closely knit the longer you live here. I could name a dozen examples of ways in which people from very disparate quarters of my life have crossed paths in ways that really almost do have a literary perfectness about them.
Rail: Tell us about how your novel got picked up for TV, and does this mean you are L.A.-bound, like Drew, my “character crush?”
Murphy: Yes, Drew, she is like the alpha boss-lady fantasy version of myself who gets her shit together much more quickly than I did back when I was a hot mess and goes on to have the perfect curated artisanal Silver Lake, Los Angeles life. She’s like aspirational lifestyle porn for me. I have no plans to move permanently to L.A., although I did work from there all last winter and that was a pretty lovely experience, even though I think everyone seems a little zombie-like from the perfect weather, even the smart people. They don’t seem to struggle enough with daily life to give them some grit and texture, but whatever. Well, the book has been optioned by Paramount TV, it’s not a done deal yet. But how it happened was, when I saw Ira Sachs’s film Love Is Strange, I thought, “Wow, this is how I would want my book to feel if it were TV or a film,” so I asked Ira to read it because I’ve known him for a few years in the queer arts circles in the city. And happily, he loved it and he sort of passed it down the L.A. creative chain, and if it actually gets bought for a TV miniseries, he’ll adapt it with Mauricio Zacharias and direct it.
Rail: What are you reading/watching/listening to these days, and what’s next for you artistically?
Murphy: The past few years of being single, all I do at home is lie down with my laptop and work and write and correspond. The last TV show I watched was The Affair back around the holidays, which I binged on even though I found everyone insufferable except Maura Tierney, whom I love. I skim Facebook enough to sort of have a fake working knowledge of TV so I can understand meme-y things like people saying, “You know nothing, Jon Snow!” One would not want to hear that and not get it. I read fiction almost only on the train or listen to audiobooks in the car. I just finished Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, which is such a feat of historical storytelling about slavery. There is something very elegant and classical about the storytelling and the sweep. And as far as movies, the only thing I can remember seeing recently is the second The Conjuring movie. I love the tone of those movies—sly and just bordering on, but not exactly encompassing, horror camp, and I can’t believe that more people don’t know that Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson have the best chemistry as the nerdy professional exorcist couple who are madly in love with each other. I could really watch them in more of those films for the next fifty years.