Kramer on Kramer
Photography By Benedict Evans
Larry Kramer’s long awaited new novel, The American People: Volume I, subtitled Search for My Heart, is finally seeing the light of day this April. It’s just the first volume, though “just” may not be the right word, since it’s 800 pages. There are times when the reader will feel like the audience at “Springtime for Hitler.” One will also find oneself laughing out loud, thinking hard, and being thrilled that someone has taken on American history from the viewpoint of gay people. The book is the history of syphilis, hepatitis, hatred, ostracism, the settling of America, concentration camps — American and German — Jews, the CIA, and something called The Underlying Condition (which we suspect will become, in the second volume, AIDS). It begins in pre-Columbian Florida, with monkeys in the Everglades, and goes on to the Puritans, the American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II, ascribing same-sex desire to George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, and so many other figures central to American history that there is no point in listing them here. It also contains the moving saga of a young boy growing up in Washington, D.C., during World War II, who learns he’s a “sissy.” In Washington, Kramer writes, “Moderation is everything,” but in this novel moderation has no place; with hundreds of characters, from nuns to Nazis, this book is in essence a fantasia on American history. How historians will receive it is hard to predict — but Kirkus Reviews called it “breathtakingly well written,” and the Publishers Weekly reviewer said it left him wondering “what the hell will happen next.” To find out, I sat down with Larry in his apartment on Washington Square Park in Manhattan.
I just finished reading your new novel, The American People: Volume I. Is it true that you started writing it in 1975?
I started when I finished Faggots, long before AIDS came along, and I kind of put it to the side. I wrote a couple of plays in between, so it was done in bits and pieces over the years. And it wasn’t until I got really sick, when I had the liver transplant [in 2000], that I got serious about making it as a whole. Because I didn’t think I was going to live. Now I’ve got to finish Volume II.
If you started it before AIDS had even emerged, what was the impetus then to write the book? Was it the idea that gays have been written out of history?
Oh, I don’t know. Why does every gay writer start out? To write his Proust? And so I wrote my Proust. The title comes from that speech by Reagan which really did hit me, where I knew he was talking about “the American people,” and I knew that I was not part of that crowd that he was talking about. It was so obvious. There has never been any history book written where the gay people have been in history since the beginning. It’s ridiculous to think that we haven’t been here forever. First, I started doing research into people who I felt were important, like Washington and Lincoln, and —
So far we’ve got George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, the Marquis de Lafayette, Baron von Steuben, Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Ralph Waldo Emerson — which really surprised me — Hawthorne, Melville, John Wilkes Booth, Mark Twain, Eleanor Roosevelt, of course, James Forrestal, Richard Nixon, Herbert Hoover. You’re writing three kinds of history in this book. There were times when you would quote from a book you had read, and you would acknowledge the author and the source. To me, that’s just history. Then there were times when I was in a kind of phantasmagoria nightmare scene, and I thought, This is not history anymore; we’re now in Larry’s imagination. And there’s the most deceptive category, the middle, in which it seems to me that you were mixing real source material with imagination. You didn’t want to write a history in which you simply extracted little-known facts about gay people in history and put it together as straight history?
No, originally I didn’t want to call it a novel, I just wanted to call it The American People and let people figure out what it was. There isn’t anything in the book that I don’t agree with, or have some belief in, and if I couldn’t find some source that would give me the right to say it, I said my version of it, as with John Wilkes Booth. Did you ever look at the pictures of all the guys who were charged with murdering Lincoln?
You go on about how good-looking Lewis Powell [a co-conspirator of Wilkes Booth] was. He was just a real hot number.
A hot number, and he knew it. They were such an unlikely lot of people. And the women had nothing to do with it, and how did they even get together? I had never read anything where they’ve been able to convince me why they were all in the same group somehow. Just to say they were Southerners and all that shit. I didn’t buy that.
So what you’re saying in a sense is that you used gaydar?
I used gaydar. What else have I got?
This is a book that starts in the pre-Columbian era in the United States, with monkeys in the Everglades in a kind of James Michener way. You’re taken back to the foundation of the continent, and there’s a great deal about colonial times, the American Revolution, the Civil War, up to the ’50s and the McCarthy era — and that’s just Volume I. So it’s this huge, sprawling, wide-ranging thing, which halfway through breaks off into a pretty conventional story about a neighborhood in Washington, D.C., in which one of the characters, Daniel Jerusalem, grows up dealing with the fact that his father beats him up and has called him a sissy.
What then became clear to me was this was really about where did AIDS come from. And by the end of Volume II I will tell you where it came from, and what I think caused it. And what should have been done, that wasn’t done. Because, we are gay, they wouldn’t do it.
I think most people know or expect this book to be about AIDS. But this is also about German scientists that came to the United States, it’s about the science of eugenics, it’s about Henry Ford, it’s about anti-Semitism, and it’s about the four horsemen of the apocalypse, which are amoebas — what is the line? I love this line.
Piss, shit, amoebas and —
Piss, shit, and it’s the history of blood, it’s the history of diseases, it’s the history of concentration camps. You found a way to write about anything that interested you. The history of syphilis is in this book. How did you know when to leave stuff out?
It was once much longer and it was much wilder. I can write in a crazy way, making things up, and I made a lot of drugs’ names up and symptoms up, and then one of the editors, along the way said: “You really don’t have to make that up. Why don’t you just use the real one?”
What are you expecting reactions to be? You got very good reviews in Kirkus and [Publisher’s Weekly].
Oh unbelievable. I always expect to get trashed for everything. I never got a good review before in my life. Even Normal Heart.
How much of Volume II is written?
I’m writing. It has to come out a year after this one. And also, the phenomenal success of the movie of The Normal Heart has touched me a lot. It was one of HBO’S biggest shows ever. And you realize, more people saw my play in those two hours that one night, than you could fill a theater with for years.
To take it as a prophylactic, just so you can go out and fuck at the Mineshaft. So you can take a pill and not worry. And that’s, again, what caused all this trouble we’re in, in the first place. A lot of people died in 35 years. And I guess I came to realize that I’m angry that I’ve been allowed to die. I was much more hopeful earlier on. I’m not saying I’m not hopeful, but I’m not hopeful. And part of what depresses me is how passive most of the gay population is about this issue. So now we have Truvada and you can get laid on Saturday night, and surely, we deserve more than that from 35 years of waiting. We could have so much if we just used the power that was there to be taken, if we could just learn how to take it. Why are there still so few people saying that? Why hasn’t there ever been another Larry Kramer? And I don’t mean that as self-serving.
But Larry, what do we want power for? We want power to have happiness in our own lives. I live in a little town in Florida now, and over the years my street has changed. I now have two women living together two houses down. And a man across the street, a new neighbor, came over right away, and, in a nice way, basically said, “I have no trouble with gay people.” It has trickled down to this little street in this little town in Florida where I feel less endangered.
You must not accept that as enough, or as all that you’re fighting for.
Things have improved in some ways.
Oh that’s what people say: Why are you complaining? You have so much now. Well, I don’t think we do.
Who’s the guy who just came out? Joel Grey?
Been trying to get him to do that for 20 years. He replaced Brad Davis in Normal Heart at the Public. So I’ve known him a long time. I’m one of the first people he sent the article to, that he’d come out. I don’t know why, now, at age 82 [laughs]. We’re so much better than most people, and we’re not getting our due for it from them, or even from each other — how much we contribute to the culture of this country. And none of that has been bought with power. It’s been bought with talent. And what would we get if we combined the talent with the amount of money that’s available in this population? How second rate the gay people who made it in the government are. When you look at the list of gay presidents, for instance, with the exception of Washington and Lincoln, all the other ones are really just jokes.
Who do you think is the most powerful gay person right now, behind the scenes or in front of the scenes, in governmental life or public life?
I have no idea. There are a couple of exceedingly rich gay men who have foundations, such as Tim Gill, Jon Stryker. What is that money buying? We have to be able to get to the people with power, and we still can’t do that. You can’t call the president and see him like you should be able to. And [Bill] Clinton did us more harm than good.
What do you think about Hillary Clinton?
I hope she gets elected. I think she’s been around long enough and knows how to play the game that needs to be played. I think she would be more available to us than anyone else.
How do you feel about the state of gay literature these days?
I don’t follow it very closely. I belong to Lambda Literary, and they put out quite a good newsletter. I still don’t see us tackling the big themes. Why is everything sexual? Why is everything about love affairs that do or do not work? We seem very limited in our ambitions.
That’s why this book is so extraordinary to me. It’s such an act of chutzpah, of taking on absolutely everything.
What else is there to take on? What else is there to do with your time? You’ve experienced as much of life as I have. Did you like the book?