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Allan Gurganus, 1997

Allan Gurganus Tells All

By Owen Keehnen

Gay Vietnam veteran Allan Gurganus is author of the best-selling novel The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (1989), the prize-winning short story collection White People (1991), and Plays Well with Others (1997), an unexpectedly comic novel of the AIDS crisis. This second novel, set in New York in the late 1970s and the 1980s, chronicles the friendship of three young men--a writer, a painter, and a composer--whose experience with the pandemic serves to strengthen the forces of friendship and intimacy. [Since this interview Gurganus has published The Practical Heart: Four Novellas (2001).]

Keehnen: What was your intent when you sat down to write Plays Well with Others?

Gurganus: What I really wanted to do was replicate the party I remember as New York of the period. A lot of people have written about that moment with hindsight and begin with all that we now understand about HIV, but there was no name for what happened. We were having a wonderful time and then this thing came. I wanted to treat it comically and in a way reproduce how we lived our lives. We were interested in forward motion and believed completely in the future. There was always something fun going on, we were always laughing at ourselves and each other. I think one of the triumphs of the period was how we kept the party going and even the hospital stays wound up being masterminded parties and how even the memorial services were joyful in a way.

Keehnen: Sex, humor, ambition, and friendship all become a way of death as well as a way of life in your book. Is that twist in the tragic format an attempt to defy death by refusing to let it change things?

Gurganus: I think so. That's the way my friends, some of whom I patterned my characters on, would have liked to be remembered. A soggy tragic book about a soggy tragic period has very little to teach. My work is always about that incredible leap from the tragic to the comic and back again. It seems to me what I had to offer in terms of an original vision of the period came perfectly out of my treating it comically.

Keehnen: You so exquisitely bring the trio of young artists in the book (Angie, Robert, and Hartley) to life. Was having them filled with so much promise an attempt to underscore the tragedy of AIDS not only on a personal level but on a social and cultural level as well?

Gurganus: Yeah. I think a lot of us have felt that the culture has gone to hell in a hand basket over the past sixteen years--that the design is uglier, that journalistic ethics have gone away--and just feel that the experiences and sensations of living through our daily lives seem so much more porous and coarse and tacky and mean. It's a bit hard to know quite why that happened. My answer is that 200,000 boys that did the designing and stayed late at the office because they didn't have a wife and four kids to get home to and who really had standards and talent and a kind of guardian vision of the culture have been taken from us. There's a huge vacuum created by this loss of talent and care and love and humor--the filter has been ripped off and what's getting through is sewage. One of the things the book tries to celebrate is just how much ingenuity we brought to our lives and work.

Keehnen: After years as a care giver, professional eulogist, and post-mortem cleaning service, Hartley begins writing about his friends. Was dealing with all that merely another act of care giving?

Gurganus: In some ways at the beginning of the book Hartley thought he was taking care of business and doing one more thing for his loved ones, but I think in fact it's for himself. One of the things he's seeking and deserves is some sort of credit for the psychology of surviving and some right to say at the end of the book, "They're gone, but I'm still here. It's a miracle, but I'm here. This is what I've sacrificed, this is what I've learned, and these were the marvelous people I knew." I think it's an act of care giving not only in terms of taking care of the memory of those departed, but also in giving him a chance to start over. Breaking down the wall of HIV and getting back to the garden and the sweetness of the 1980s, retrieving that memory was a pleasure. I didn't think I'd be able to get back in there.

Keehnen: How did you achieve it?

Gurganus: By literally remembering what I took to New York in my Toyota, tying my huge speakers like Stonehenge to the roof of the car. Everything went with me--every shirt, every sweater, every scrap of paper I'd ever written, as well as all my sketchbooks. Somehow by remembering that car and my sensations those first days, I was able to do this weird kind of plodding in the playground before the pandemic.

Keehnen: It seems so impossible to me that you wrote this book in five months. What drove you?

Gurganus: Very, very fast. I wrote it immediately after my mother's funeral. I delivered the eulogy for her, which was about the twentieth I'd done in fifteen years. Afterwards I just jerked the phone out of the wall and thought, "I'll never have to wake up at 3 a.m. to a telephone call again." Everybody I knew who was really sick was now dead. With that break or reprieve I didn't go to the Caribbean and get an IV to return to nutritional level, I sat down and wrote. The book began with the image of the address book and what do you do with dead people who had been your main folks. Do you transfer their names to the new address book or let them go and try to get another friend in their place? How do we deal with this endless mulching and recycling that we have to do? Also I was wishing (and one of the things about being a writer is that you're a professional wisher) to make up my best friends--that became Robert and Angie. It was the consolation that my memory ultimately needed. I fell in love with them the way I fell in love with my friends in New York. We all thought we were running with the most talented, gorgeous, and gifted crowd. It was a rich feeling of being in a circle.

When I finished the book I gift-wrapped it, sent it to my editor in New York, and slept for three days. When I woke up I thought, "I have an idea for a book," and then I realized, "You just wrote it, you dumb motherfucker." Even now when I see it in bookstores or talk to people like you who really read it in earnest and with your corpuscles I'm so thrilled with having done it. I think I could have only done it really fast. If I had spent seven years writing the book, it would have been a great chronicle of the period, but it wouldn't have this raw, propulsive quality. I literally wanted it to be a page-turner. I wrote it in these small chapters to give the reader a sense of forward traction and achievement as they go through the book. It was very different from The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, which is the voice of a 99-year-old woman who has been waiting all her life to tell these stories and they're all finished and waiting to be unwrapped.

Keehnen: Plays Well with Others has great momentum that's fueled by these incredible friendships. Upon finishing I had the intense urge to phone all my friends. Throwing Robert's question back at you, what did you learn in writing it?

Gurganus: That community is an art form. When we arrived in New York, each of us was living in the first personal singular--I am talented, I am beautiful, I am ambitious, I need a good apartment. Eventually you ran into other I's that were even bigger than yours. We began to show our work to each other, and soon our work began tying us together. Even a writer, a composer, and a painter who are working at the same time find they're doing the same sort of work or have similar passions. So when the crisis hit, instead of shattering or retreating to our little towns, we stayed. In part because we had matured enough to accept this as our genuine realm and in part because we had moved from being this first person singular to the collective we. We are in trouble and we need this for Robert and we need to do that--it was we, we, we. At the end it was I again, and what's odd is that the I that I'd become was so crowded and complicated by these people that it was immeasurably enlarged. Friendship became a condition I could carry with me even if I never made another friend, though I certainly have. I still feel like a crowd because of the depth of feeling we went through.

Keehnen: Both Plays Well with Others and The Oldest Living Confederate Widow could be classified as war novels. Do you think your service in the Vietnam War attuned you to the theme of war and survivors?

Gurganus: In a way. I survived the Vietnam War in the navy, but I can tell you that New York in this period was infinitely harder. It was much more wrenching and much less designated. In Vietnam if someone got hurt there were the medics to take care of them, but in our crowd if someone got sick we had to do it because most everyone was too poor to have insurance.

Keehnen: Would you care to comment on Harper's magazine backing out of publishing the first segment of Plays Well with Others called "Thirty Dildoes"?

Gurganus: They published ten or twelve of my stories and one of them won the National Magazine Prize for Harper's. What really upset me was Lewis Lapham telling me they published a photograph of lesbians in a previous issue and lost advertisers, so naturally I was going to cooperate and get off the cover myself. I refused. The younger staff at the magazine was grotesquely offended by what happened but were powerless. If the story had been written by Hemingway and had been called "Thirty Dildoes" everybody would think it was adorable, but if the story is about an out gay man and about HIV then he's expected to be a good citizen by hiding, and I wouldn't fucking do it. I'm so sick of jumping because shame is invoked and of being expected to be a good guy and behave. I've given my lifeblood for Harper's and helped revitalize them, and my reward for that is to have my name and title pulled off the cover and hidden inside. I consider that ghettoization. I came out of the closet when I was 21 and I'm not going back in at the age of 49. If you won't put my name on the cover because I'm gay and writing about unpopular subjects, then I'm taking my party elsewhere.

Keehnen: And what was that business of wanting the title changed to "Thirty Friends"? Once you read the story and know it's about dildoes, that sort of seems even raunchier.

Gurganus: That was his suggestion! Yeah, thirty really big friends. It's that kind of ridiculousness. The thought of this from someone who prides himself on being a First Amendment champion is just preposterous and beyond belief.

Keehnen: Did you worry the raunchy nature of much of the novel would alienate some of your Oldest Living Confederate Widow readers?

Gurganus: I think that may happen, but the book is composed in such a way that if they just give it 100 pages they'll be so enamored of the characters that even mothers and fathers will sponsor these kids. I put "Thirty Dildoes" up front because I didn't want false advertising. I didn't want them to get 100 pages in and say, "Euww." They know what's coming. I think the energy and good will of the book will carry it, and so far it really has.

Keehnen: I'd love to hear your story about John Cheever coming on to you at the Iowa Writer's Workshop.

Gurganus: I was in my twenties and pretty; of course we all are at one age. John was 64. He'd just had a major heart attack and was still drinking a half-gallon of scotch a day. He was a wonderful teacher and ran our class like a cocktail party. He wanted us all to have scotch at our student conferences in his hotel room. He really loved my work and saw before I did what I was capable of as an artist. He sent my first story to The New Yorker, which they bought.

Keehnen: That was "Minor Heroism" in 1974, which was also the first piece of fiction The New Yorker published with an overtly gay theme.

Gurganus: Yeah. Very good. It was so exciting. I think if John were coming of age now he wouldn't have married, but because of who he was and where he was he did. Like a lot of guys of that period, I think he felt guilt about his sexuality and blamed the men he slept with. It was always the other guy's fault. I had this weird sense of self-preservation not to sleep with him. In the book I gave Hartley an actual experience of this, which I did have occur at the St. Mark's Baths with an airline steward.

Keehnen: You mean the patient zero part of the novel is true?

Gurganus: Yeah, he was a gorgeous guy, and everything was perfect, and something inside me said, "No". The same was true with John. He was older and I thought I couldn't do this if I tried. It seemed like a terrible mistake. I wanted him as my friend, my reader, and my teacher. I felt the only way to preserve our connection was to keep it as it had been assigned. I'm glad I did because he was my friend for the rest of his life. Now when I read his journals and read about A (which is what they called me) and about how much he loved me and my beauty and my potential, I really understand he was genuinely in love with me. Of course it's something you don't know when you're 24; you assume he's coming on to everybody. Still, I wouldn't have changed my decision.

Keehnen: But now do you see his situation with a different sort of compassion?

Gurganus: That's right, and I did stay in close touch, but at a certain point you just get bored taking someone's hand off your knee.

Keehnen: Do you have a first memory of wanting to be a writer?

Gurganus: I started out being a painter. I had one-man shows when I was fourteen and sold some work. The first blinding realization of what writing could do was when I was on the USS Yorktown in the war in Vietnam. I became so bored I decided I was going to actually read a book. It was Henry James's Portrait of a Lady, and it took the top of my head off. I was so deeply thrilled by it. I thought, "I bet I could do this; I bet I could do something like this." I was such an innocent that I didn't understand the complexity.

Keehnen: Well, you certainly seem to have sorted out all the difficulty. Congratulations on the new book, Allan, and all the best to you in the future.

Gurganus: Thanks, Owen.

About Owen Keehnen
Owen Keehnen has worked as a journalist, book reviewer, and interviewer for a number of years. Currently, the Chicago based author is completing a trilogy of interview books on gay XXX stars, finishing a horror novel, and supporting himself as a massage therapist. He is also launching a website which celebrates independent horror films,
Related Pages

American Literature: Gay Male, Post-Stonewall

AIDS Literature

Cheever, John



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