An interview with gay writer Tim Murphy
By Gregg Shapiro
Photo by Chris Gabello
Gay writer Tim Murphy’s epic third novel, Christodora, is the queer book of the summer, perhaps the year. Spanning 30 years, from the early 1980s to the early 2020s, Murphy takes readers back to the early days of the AIDS crisis in New York, giving us a perspective from deep inside the trenches while also shining a radiant light on the possibilities of the near future. Fully realized and authentic characters, including artist couple Milly and Jared, adopted son Mateo, Milly’s activist/scientist mother Ava, Milly’s writer friend Drew, Mateo’s mother Issy and AIDS activist Hector, give the novel its energy and soul. No doubt readers will find themselves immediately invested in the lives of these affectionately drawn characters, shedding more than a few tears as they read. I spoke with Murphy about the book and more in August 2016.
Gregg Shapiro: Tim, as someone with a background as a journalist, why did you choose to tell the story of Christodora in the novel format?
Tim Murphy: Well, I had considered for many years trying to write a narrative nonfiction account of AIDS activism and treatment research and development because I had reported on it for a long time and because I really think it is one of the great undertold stories of ingenuity and heroism on the part of a marginalized community. The activists who took that on in the late '80s and early '90s showed incredible grace and nerve under pressure, and most of them were so young at the time, in their 20s and 30s! Such a great story full of strong personalities, heartbreak, bravado, disappointments, grit, sex, love, siblinghood and, ultimately, victory amid a lot of grief and loss.
But then I heard that David France, who made the wonderful documentary How to Survive a Plague about ACT UP, was working on a nonfiction book companion to the film, so that shot that idea. I decided instead to fold it into a very sprawling NYC novel that would have the AIDS fight as its historical spine but that would also weave in and out of many different kinds of lives and allow for a lot of interiority and character-building and a very sweeping canvas of the city. Honestly, it wasn't even that planned out when I started. The idea of making it a full-blooded fictional account of the AIDS activist timeline kind of evolved with every passing chapter. I have had this real-life chronology in my head and my heart for so many years. I started as a novelist in my 20s. It just felt exciting and very much worth it as a kind of historical-fiction project to try to weave it all into a saga that also delved into family, friendship, drugs, sex, art, mental illness, the ever-changing city. The landscape of my life the past 25 years here in Gotham [laughs].
GS: Christodora spans about 30 years and is told in a nonlinear chronology. Why did you choose to do that?
TM: The idea of telling this story chronologically kind of bored me. To me, there is something heartstopping about seeing the present through the lens of the past and vice versa. I am a very nostalgic person, obsessed with the past, obsessed with ghosts and memories and how time tempers and twists our recollection of things. I wanted Christodora to feel full of ghosts and reverberations and echoes of the 1980s and 1990s and even the 2000s, to keep layering years upon one another to create a kind of palimpsest so that you weren't reading just from suspense but also from a kind of regret and empathy of knowing what characters have been through, or what they'll go through, and you can only do that if you're going back as well as forward in time.
GS: Some of the 30 years of the novel reach into the near future, as far as 2021.
TM: I did it mainly to push the story forward, not to do a science-fiction thing. I tried to take a very light hand with the New York of 2021. I did not want it to be quite as intensely future-heavy as, say, the final chapter of Jenny Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad. I was doing it primarily to serve the story, but I also had to make some realistic guesses about what the city would be like then. Something that really solidified those final chapters for me was the heat, global warming, the idea of the temperature being freakishly up in the 70s or even 80s in the first months of the year. That really set the tone for me in the final chapter of Milly feeling that life as she's long known it has gone out of whack.
GS: What is the significance of the characters Ava, Milly and Jared being Jewish?
TM: I grew up in a very white, mostly Irish or Italian Catholic town in Massachusetts. I barely knew any Jews, blacks, Latinos or gay people until college, and then, especially, New York. Classic New York to me is Jews, blacks, Latinos and gay people and the overlap in those groups. Most of my friends of the past 25 years fall into at least one of those categories. The Heymans and the Traums remind me of families of some of my best friends from college and later on, especially the ones who grew up in New York. I guess I wanted to try to paint the feel of that sort of bourgeois but liberal New York family, the same way I wanted to paint the Dominican family and neighborhood in Queens that Issy is from.
GS: With so many characters from which to choose, is there one to whom you feel especially close?
TM: There is a huge strain of my experience in every one of the main characters. They are all combinations of composites of people I've known and my own inner life, even Jared and his raging youthful ambition that gets tempered by time and circumstances. I feel weirdly close to all of them. I think Mateo reflects a lot of my adolescent pain and rage and my own very bumpy experiences trying to quit drugs when I was in my early 30s. Drew is some sort of affluent, aspirational, alpha version of myself as an adult making my living as a writer after a messy start in life. Milly is a blend of the women I have loved most in my life, and in many ways, Ava is, too. Issy is an homage to so many good-hearted and brave women living with HIV/AIDS I've written about or worked with, befriended, and she is also my own story of coming out of secrecy and shame about being HIV-positive and trying to put that experience toward the greater good politically. And Hector is based on a lot of older gay men that I have dated, had sex with or been infatuated with [laughs].
GS: Milly, Jared and Mateo are visual artists. Why did you choose this form of creative expression for these characters?
TM: Visual artists are romantic to me because I am so not one — I'm a verbal person — and also because I know a lot of artists, and my two main relationships have been with visual artists. New York is the kind of place where it is really not unusual for there to be a whole middle-class household of artists, and most of them are not some storybook picture of artists but kind of average New Yorkers who also teach, juggle appointments and commitments and errands, raise and struggle with kids, health insurance, all that everyday stuff. So I wanted the Traum family to be privileged but also kind of normal by New York standards at the same time. And though this is a bit of a cliché, art is also a redemptive force in the book for a few of the characters.
GS: Drugs play a prominent role in the book — from antidepressants and HIV/AIDS meds to crystal meth and heroin.
TM: I have a long history with both prescription drugs and illegal drugs, even though I've now been in recovery for many years. I originally thought of Christodora as a collection of loosely linked short stories called Doing Drugs. So this book and all of its intricate connections really emerged for me chapter for chapter, which is why the first several chapters have a very disconnected feel, and then everything slowly knits and locks into place, which is a structure I really love. I thought a lot about the [Robert Altman] film Gosford Park when writing this book. There are so many characters swirling all around you, and you are like, how can they all possibly connect? Then when you learn how, it is so devastating. It is like being taken right down to the heart of a vortex of secrets and inner regrets. I kept that in mind while writing this book.
GS: You also write about Elizabeth Taylor in the novel. Did you ever have the opportunity to meet her?
TM: No, sadly. I loved writing that section. What Liz Taylor did for people with AIDS makes me very weepy. I fucking love that woman, like a typical gay man of a certain age. She was a dame in every sense of the word. When I saw the pics of her going and hanging out at the Abbey in LA in her final years in her wheelchair — I just lost it. She knew who she loved and who loved her back. I am tearing up right now just thinking about it. That was a woman who truly earned her love from the gays, way more than these so-called “Sasha Fierce” divas today who take gay money but basically do nothing for the LGBTQ community. Beyoncé could not even speak out against repealing the LGBTQ protection law in her own hometown of Houston? Lame.
GS: Gay filmmaker Ira Sachs is working on a limited series adaptation of Christodora for Paramount. What does that mean to you?
TM: I love his directing style. It is so muted and offhand, with so much emotion and tension bursting right beneath the surface. I always tell him, “Your films are so French!” In his new film, Little Men, there is a scene near the beginning where Greg Kinnear breaks down crying while taking out the garbage, and you don't even see his face. Ira shoots him partially obscured by a wall. He is so good at capturing the rhythms and tics of a certain kind of bourgeois-bohemian downtown New York life. When I saw Love is Strange, I thought, “This is what I'd want Christodora to feel like if it were on film,” so I asked him to read it shortly after Grove bought the book, and thankfully, our feelings about having the same emotional DNA were mutual.
GS: Have you started working on or thinking about your next book project?
TM: I have. I started something shortly after Grove bought Christodora because I learned after writing my two novels in my 20s, Getting Off Clean and The Breeders Box, that a writer who puts all their emotional energy into a finished book and not some of it into a new book is an unhappy writer. The new project is very different from Christodora — an entirely different world and milieu. But very much about family and also about larger events outside of personal family life.
GS: Finally, I know that you are one of the founders of Gays Against Guns (GAG). What can you tell me about the organization?
TM: Well, GAG is the main reason I have barely worked on the new book in the past two months! We formed in NYC a few days after Orlando, and we had about 150 people at the first meeting, and we've had about that many at every meeting since with chapters already up and running also in New Jersey, DC, Los Angeles and Massachusetts, and more underway. Speaking personally, and not for anyone else in the group, although I think most would agree, I am so angry at the gun industry and their lobby in this country. I don't think people know how much they have actually calculatedly crafted the gun landscape we have today and how they bank on and profit from every new mass shooting. We have already pulled off about half-dozen truly gutsy, confrontational actions on them — with more to come. One of the best things about GAG so far is the number of ACT UP and AIDS veterans who've jumped in — men and women, gay and straight. They went up against institutions and a culture that hated them, and ultimately, they changed the culture, so they are some pretty fearless characters. I thought this would be my summer of promoting a novel about mostly bygone activism, and now I find myself many evenings a week in meetings in the same building in NYC where ACT UP met, so it has been a very art-imitating-life-imitating-art summer for me so far, and I have to say that I am exhausted but also having a blast.
Gregg Shapiro is the author of Fifty Degrees (Seven Kitchens, 2016), selected by Ching-In Chen as co-winner of the Robin Becker Chapbook Prize. Other books by Shapiro include the short story collections How to Whistle (Lethe Press, 2016) and Lincoln Avenue (Squares and Rebels Press, 2014), the chapbook GREGG SHAPIRO: 77 (Souvenir Spoon Press, 2012), and the poetry collection Protection (Gival Press, 2008). An entertainment journalist whose interviews and reviews run in a variety of regional LGBT and mainstream publications and websites, Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with his husband, Rick, and their dog, k.d.