The view from Christodora House, overlooking an epidemic

Tim Murphy
Tim Murphy

Since it came out in early August, Tim Murphy’s book Christodora, which chronicles half a dozen intersecting lives in New York City at the height of the AIDS epidemic and the decades beyond, has received raves for its artful and vivid blending of fictional lives and real-life events.

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Publishers Weekly called it “The Bonfire of the Vanities for the age of AIDS,” the Washington Post called it “one of the few serious attempts…in literature to explore the crisis of meth addiction among gay men,” and Paramount’s new TV division has optioned the saga for a possible miniseries to be coproduced by True Detective’s Cary Fukunaga and Love Is Strange cowriter and director Ira Sachs.

The Pride LA talked to Murphy, a longtime New York-based LGBT and HIV/AIDS journalist as well as a main organizer of the new activist group Gays Against Guns:

Join Tim Murphy for a reading at Skylight Books Tuesday Sept 20 at 7:30pm

Q. That’s exciting about the book being optioned by Paramount. How did that happen?

A. I’ve known filmmaker Ira Sachs here in New York for a while and when I saw Love Is Strange, I thought, “Wow, that’s what I’d want Christodora to feel like if it were a TV show or a film,” that very quiet, matter-of-fact observing of these everyday New York lives with this kind of emotion and heartbreak pulsing underneath the surface.

So once Grove bought the book last summer, I asked Ira to read it and he said, “Sure, but just so you know, I usually write my own material.”

But it turned out he loved it, so he gave it to his writing partner Mauricio Zacharias, who also loved it, and they passed it to Cary Fukunaga, who then passed it to Paramount, with whom he has a producing partnership, and that’s how they bought the option with such a great string of talent attached to it. Now they’d just have to sell it to someplace like HBO, Amazon or Netflix. Fingers crossed.

Q. You’ve been an HIV/AIDS journalist for 20 years. How did a novel with that backdrop come to be?

A. I wrote two pretty gay novels in my late twenties, Getting Off Clean The Breeders Box. But then I had some hard years with depression and addiction and when I came out of them post-9/11, I threw myself into journalism at POZmagazine and really didn’t have much interest in writing fiction again, or when I’d try, I just couldn’t really feel it.

But after nearly a decade like that, I started to feel like I would get very unhappy if I never again tried to write another novel, and by that point, having lived through all sorts of ups and down in New York City for nearly 20 years, through the worst AIDS years and their aftermath, I had a lump in my heart of things I wanted to write about.

I just didn’t have a complete novel in mind, so I wrote a short story with some of the major characters from Christodora, including the bourgeois artists Milly and Jared living in the Christodora building in the East Village with their little adopted son, Mateo, whose mother Ysabel had died from AIDS several years prior, and that’s how the book began.

Many of the major connections and plot turns in the book I didn’t figure out til I was well into the writing, so it was a very mysterious writing process for me. I found this story as I wrote it, not in advance.

Q. Was it hard writing about AIDS in the 1980s and early 1990s, probably the most painful chapter in LGBT history?

A. It was a personal mourning process for me and it was cathartic. The story of not just the grief and the horror but also the heroism displayed by AIDS caretakers and the street activists of ACT UP has not really been fully told yet, but it’s an amazing heroic and emotional story, and it deserves to be told and to be written into American history.

It was deeply moving to write fictional characters into that real-life history and I really just wanted to do that chapter of gay history justice and to get the science and politics right, overall, even while allowing myself some poetic justice and trying not to go so deep into the weeds of treatment and research that I would lose readers.

I kept always trying to root the story back into the characters and how larger events shape their lives and relationships.

Q. Reviewers have noted that the book is about so many things other than the AIDS epidemic–it’s about mental illness, addiction, gentrification, the art scene, the politics of activism, and especially about the ups and downs of friendship and family ties over many, many years. What is it about to you?

A. For one thing, it’s about how the past and present bleed into each other, which is why the book is non-chronological and jumps back and forth in time quite a bit, even though the story slowly reveals itself nonetheless, like a good mystery or puzzle.

It’s about reading the past through the lens of the present, and vice versa. And it’s also about how nobody has to be the hero all the time, all their life, and how hopefully if you are the hero for somebody at one point in your life, others will turn around and be the hero for you at another point when you most need it.

That is a recurring theme for me through the book. It’s also about being very nostalgic about New York in the 1980s and 1990s and trying to recapture those years through music and culture and clothes and past clubs, like Paradise Garage and Boy Bar.

Q. And the funny this is that you’ve written so much about activism in this book and now you are one of the main members of the founding chapter of Gays Against Guns.

A. Yes, I didn’t think that when I was writing Christodora and trying to imagine and recreate on the page the heyday of ACT UP, that I would be sitting in meetings in the very same rooms at the NYC LGBT Community Center as we mount an ACT UP-like direct action fight against the gun industry lobby in the U.S.

That lobby has effectively blocked in Congress even the most moderate and common-sense laws for gun safety, like reinstating the former ban on assault weapons, which no civilian needs, and background checks on all gun sales, including at gun shows and online.

I guess the connection is that people laughed at faggots and dykes and trans people when they were fighting for their own lives in the 1980s and then to get married in the 2000s, and then we won both those battles because being marginalized has given us a great deal of grit, ingenuity and persistence.

And some NRA lovers out there right now are laughing at these “silly faggots” trying to create gun reform after the Pulse massacre in Orlando. But the truth is that the vast majority of Americans are on our side both as queer people and as gun-reform activists, and our willingness to hit the streets for the first time shouting “Fuck the NRA!” is making that majority more powerful and outspoken, too.

Queer people have a history of being out ahead of the rest of the culture in terms of charting the country’s future course and it feels great to be part of the first gun-safety movement that is saying to the gun profiteers and to the NRA, “This is bullshit, you can’t keep enabling carnage for your own profit, and we have no problem making your life as miserable as possible until we break your back in Congress and in the culture overall.”

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