Tim Murphy’s new novel is a multi-layered, multi-generational story about a family of characters whose lives intertwine in an iconic building in Manhattan’s East Village; the Christodora.
Opening in New York in the early 1980s and moving forward in time to the near future, it is an energetic and compelling novel about AIDS, activism, addiction and art.
The Christodora is home to Milly and Jared, a privileged artistic young couple. Downstairs their neighbour, Hector, a Puerto Rican gay man and former AIDS activist, now exists as a lonely addict. Milly and Jared have an adopted son, Mateo, who grows up yearning to know more of his birth mother while flirting with the opportunities for both self-realisation and oblivion that New York offers.
A story very much located in the heart of the early AIDS epidemic, Christodora is a fictional exploration of how the health crisis impacted on individual people’s lives.
Tim Murphy is a journalist for the New York Times and Conde Nast Traveller and has reported on HIV/AIDS for twenty years.
Attitude book reviewer Uli Lenart spoke with Tim and asked him about writing the novel and his own background in activism.
Christadora House in New York City’s East Village.
So the Christodora – can you tell us a little about the history of the building itself?
It was built for $1 million by reformists as working-class housing in the late 1920s, sank into dereliction with the rest of the Lower East Side in the 1960s and 1970s and was sold for a stunningly low $60,000, then came bounding back as trendy condos during the yuppie resurgence of the 1980s. It became a huge flashpoint for gentrification in the neighborhood. It was rioted upon. And now in 2017, apartments there sell for between $1 and $2 million. In other words, it’s the story of the rise, fall and rise of the city itself the past several decades, in which AIDS happened smack in the middle.
What are the major themes of Christodora as you see them?
The book is about gay life and the AIDS epidemic in NYC and its aftermath, about sex and drugs and clubs, addiction and recovery, love and family and friendship and community. But to me the book is really about the slippage of time, how yesterday haunts today, especially in a big city. Or, as Edie Beale says in Grey Gardens, “It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present.”
How did you manage to write a book about AIDS, sickness and addiction that still has whole chapters that are really sexy and funny and joyous?
I really wanted to capture the fact that, even at the height of the epidemic, gay people still partied, went to clubs, had sex, had fun, wore fashion, made art, made music. All of that. There were survival and coping mechanisms, showing that life and fabulousness go on in the midst of trauma. Look at how glamorous and decadent the 1980s were. All of that was going on amid illness and death. So I really wanted the two to coexist alongside each other, where you would have characters literally dancing and fucking one day and then mourning someone the next. I wanted to capture the crazy schizoid quality of the times.
Why did you want to write this story?
The whole sweep of AIDS in New York, from the earliest days to the worst days, to the activism and the big treatment turnaround in 1996, and then the aftermath for the survivors, has never been dramatized. I wanted to tell it as an homage to friends older than I who survived that period, and also for younger people who really have no idea of everything that went down, how dark the era was but also how fiercely and brilliantly queer people mobilized against power structures that saw their lives as expendable. It’s an amazing, epic story.
Were some characters easier to write than others?
All the characters are blends of people I know – some intimately, some hardly at all – with big pieces of myself in all the characters. So they all came fairly naturally. I think the hardest was Issy Mendes, who is the working-class Latina from Queens who finds out she is HIV+. I didn’t want to take a slightly cheeky hand with her like I do with some of the other characters, so I had to work harder at making her funny and quirky and real without being too satirical about her.
And do you have a favourite?
I don’t have a favorite among the main characters; I feel really close to them all because they remind me of myself or of people I’m close to. I have some favorites among the minor characters, especially because I think they appear as jerks early on in the book and then you see other sides of them as it goes on, which I think is very much how life is, especially in a big city where you are meeting new people all the time.
Do you think there is anything, other than the choice of setting, which characterises a New York novel?
I think maybe that there is a sense of speed and movement and crowdedness and public space and social jockeying around a New York story. It is less inclined toward being a very interior, claustrophobic book because characters are always at large events or in the streets, negotiating their relationships to one another for money, power, sex or prestige. Very much in the Balzac or the Edith Wharton tradition. In Christodora, my favorite scenes are those that happen in meetings or at parties where you really see the city buzzing along in all its ambitions and its variations.
How is the novel structured and why did you choose the form you did?
It starts the weekend before 9/11 with this young, bobo couple named Milly and Jared who have adopted this little boy, this AIDS orphan, named Mateo, and then you have two timelines. One goes forward from there as Mateo grows up and you kind of see this family unravel like a time bomb, but it alternates with another timeline that starts in 1981 and is about his birth mother, Issy, and how she gets AIDS and joins a community of activists, especially this very charismatic gay guy, Hector Villanueva. I mixed up periods like that because time is so fluid in New York. You are walking down a street, fully in the present, and then you pass an apartment or a building or something that you once had a relationship to, and suddenly it’s 1984 or 1993 or 2002 again, just like a time capsule. You can taste and smell that moment in your life. The city is so dense with these markers of time. It’s full of ghosts of amazing characters who have left, either the city literally or life on earth.
The AIDS activism elements of the novel reveal the role women played in the crisis. Can you tell us a little more about this?
Reporting about HIV/AIDS since the early 1990s, I’ve always been aware of how women were affected by it and also the role they played in activism. One of the first stories I ever wrote was on Gay Men’s Health Crisis’ Lesbian AIDS Program in 1994, before they even had a so-called women’s program! But gay men have captured the AIDS story, both because of their numbers affected and their power as men. Lesbians played a huge role in AIDS activism, even if few of them were HIV+ themselves. They still do. And not that there weren’t tensions, but the epidemic was an incredible picture of gay men and women working together for something, which paved the way for the marriage movement.
With the current political climate in the States do you think there are lessons that can be learned from AIDS activism?
Absolutely. The first lesson is, don’t sit back and take it! Your ability to change the political picture is limited only by your energy and your imagination and your willingness to work with others. Look at what AIDS activists did in the 1980s. They realized eventually that all the protests in the world wouldn’t work if they didn’t crack the science and policy and beat the health establishment at their own game, becoming experts along the way. And they did, pooling their minds and resources. That initial layer of street resistance is important, but it’s also important to dig deeper and really strategize about what you want and how to get there.
You write very directly and what feels like very authentically about drug use. Did you have anxieties about depicting this?
Some, not all, of that is based on my own struggles several years ago with crystal meth use. There is a lot of heroin use in the book as well and that I had to try to recreate without having gone there myself. There are some very graphic passages of drug use in the book and I did wonder if the book would get any traction with those sections, but I strongly feel that we read and we write, fiction or nonfiction, to relay or to understand experiences foreign from our own, so I just sort of forged on. I wanted to try to depict in real time the 360-degree experience of drug use, from the love affair and the euphoria to the terrifying chaos and its toll on others, and then also the incredible ambivalence you can feel about stopping.
Tim (r) with Attitude book reviewer Uli Lenart.
In Christodora you envisage Manhattan’s near future, the storyline projecting forward to 2021. In light of Trump, do you think that vision now looks different?
Writing that 2021 section back in 2012 or whatever, I did not assume we would have a proto-fascist president like Trump by now, I thought we’d probably have a liberal corporate Democrat like Obama or Hillary Clinton. I did think it was highly likely we, meaning the U.S., would have more privatized systems of school, public works, etc. by the 2020s and I do think we are going in that general direction regardless of the president unless the Democratic Party truly rediscovers its roots in labor and wealth redistribution. Which I don’t see happening yet, despite Trump. But I did just find out that his shitty, cruel health bill just tanked in Congress, so I’m happy about that. Fuck Trump!
I’d like to take about your own involvement in activism and social justice. Tell us about Rise & Resist.
Well, it is a group we formed here in NYC after the election to sort of fight back against various Trump attacks and also to push for a more truly progressive New York State and New York City. It is very much modeled after the 1980s AIDS group ACT UP with its loosely participatory, horizontal structure and a lot of the best talent in the group is from the ACT UP veterans in their fifties and sixties. They know how to pull off a civil disobedience, negotiate with the police, provide legal backup, etc. We staged a “cough-in” in the restaurants in Trump’s hotel where we all started coughing like crazy and marching around with signs saying “We need Obamacare, Trumpcare makes us sick!” Total disruption of the brunch crowd and lots of media attention. It was great.
Christodora by Tim Murphy is available on Amazon now.
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