Larry Kramer is up front about his frailties. Having “almost died three times,” and freely admitting to “not being so mobile,” he also tells a publicist to warn me he’s hard of hearing and a phone interview may be tough. He’s game to try, though.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work out and so after a couple of questions, we opt for an e-mail exchange. It’s not nearly the death knell to friendly sparring I fear. He has his answers back in about 20 minutes and answers several rounds of follow-ups quickly and without grumble.
The occasion? The publication of his new novel “The American People, Vol. 1: Search for My Heart,” which Farrar, Straus and Giroux published in April. It’s a behemoth —nearly 800 pages that tells variously of prehistoric monkeys, the Puritans, the American Revolution, the Civil War and also the abundant — in Kramer’s vision — homosexual proclivities of the U.S. Founding Fathers with a dizzying cast that includes Washington, Hamilton, Lincoln and even John Wilkes Booth.
Kramer, a D.C. native, is widely known for his groundbreaking and searing play “The Normal Heart,” adapted into an HBO Emmy-winning film last year, and other works such as the novel “Faggots” (1978) and his Oscar-nominated screenplay of “Women in Love.” A pioneering AIDS activist, he cofounded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in 1982 and founded ACT-UP in 1987. He turns 80 next month and lives in New York’s Greenwich Village with his husband, David Webster (they wed in 2013) and their Cairn Terrier, Charlie, a rescue dog Kramer, always a dog person, says is “very good natured.” He ends our session by admonishing me via e-mail to “be sure to put something in about how much you loved ‘The American People’ and everyone should rush out and buy it and read it immediately!” It is not a stretch to accommodate this request.
WASHINGTON BLADE: Is it fair to say your book is a take on “how it might have happened” on issues of gay Americans, HIV and the Founding Fathers?
LARRY KRAMER: No. I am saying that I think this all did happen. I wanted to write a history of our people.
BLADE: Do you feel AIDS was started on purpose by homophobic German scientists?
KRAMER: No! I am saying that the AIDS virus has been with us since our country started, centuries ago.
BLADE: The New York Times review says your book suggests that “gay men have been with us long before homosexuality had a name and it is past time we extend to these men our historical sympathy and imagination.” Is that a fair estimation?
KRAMER: Of course, although I have never had a good review from the New York Times for anything!
BLADE: Did you envision the book as having such scale at the outset?
KRAMER: Yes. I was striving to write a “big book.” The technical problems interested me. I’ve written plays, movies, essays, a shorter novel. I wanted to see how far I could stretch myself. As I love to write, it’s been an exciting, challenging journey.
BLADE: What was the hardest part of the process? Did you hit any artistic brick walls along the way?
KRAMER: The hardest part was trying to figure out what makes a reader read such a long and complicated book that tells many stories and has a huge cast of characters.
BLADE: You’ve spoken of applying gaydar to historical matters. How fair in general do you feel that is or did it matter for your purposes?
KRAMER: I do not think the gay community is plugged in enough to their radar, so I tried to do it for them.
BLADE: In the modern day, much gaydar has been directed at former U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ind). It sounds as though he had transparency issues regardless of whether he’s gay or straight, but is this kind of speculation of his being gay warranted?
KRAMER: Who gives a shit about “speculation” and whether it’s warranted or not? That’s the coward’s way out.
BLADE: Art, history and autobiography are always blurred in your work with characters like Ned Weeks (“The Normal Heart”) or Fred Lemish (“Faggots” and “The American People”). What is accomplished either historically or artistically by taking this approach?
KRAMER: A writer has one great subject to write about, his own life. My life has had many rivers, lived by many Larry Kramers.
BLADE: How’s volume two of “The American People” coming? About what percentage is done?
KRAMER: I have a rough draft but it’s very rough.
BLADE: You’ve taken on the possible homosexual proclivities of the Founding Fathers. Is there a point where similar approaches might be unfair or too obscured by history to justify? Any thoughts on those who assume, for instance, David and Jonathan in the Old Testament were lovers?
KRAMER: Having a strong opinion does not need the justification you are speaking about. No history of gay people exists, which is why I am trying to write one.
BLADE: But at any point in writing “American People,” did you feel you were on shaky ground? Isn’t it relatively easy to slap a gay nametag on a historical figure? What purpose is served in doing this beyond crafting entertaining fiction? Obviously it appears you had more in mind than that.
KRAMER: You miss the whole point of the book if you think I just made up these gay historical figures. I certainly was not out to craft entertaining fiction, but to instruct our people in their history. The only “shaky ground” was my concern people would not take seriously what I was telling them. Interesting that the great reviews arriving are from gay critics and the nasty ones are from straights!
BLADE: You’ve spoken often of the virtues of anger. Are you bitter? If so, is this a negative emotion?
KRAMER: I am not bitter. I am angry. Anger is a wonderful motivator for me!
BLADE: How old were you when you left Washington, D.C.?
KRAMER: I went off to Yale when I was 18. I still go back to see friends.
BLADE: Predictions for the Supreme Court gay case argued last week? If we win there, will we have won overall?
KRAMER: We will have won the right to marry. We have not yet won equality or a cure to AIDS.
BLADE: You’ve been critical of so many approaches to activism from HRC to Frank Kameny and beyond over the years. But could we have gotten to the Supreme Court solely using ACT-UP-style approaches? Couldn’t a variety of approaches have helped us in the long run?
KRAMER: Who says these kind of tactics were not used to help win marriage? I don’t remember criticizing Frank.
BLADE: Didn’t you feel Frank and some others spent too much time looking back?
KRAMER: Yes, I did say that.
BLADE: You told the Advocate recently you are working on a “Normal Heart” sequel, but didn’t you do that already with “Destiny of Me”? Is this another work?
KRAMER: I am working on a sequel to the HBO movie, which was a big success for them. But it has not been announced yet until they approve my screenplay and whether Ryan Murphy is free to direct it. “The destiny of Me” was more a prequel than a sequel.
BLADE: Were you overall pleased with how the HBO adaptation turned out?
KRAMER: Very much so. I loved working with Ryan and we had such a great cast, Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts, Jim Parsons, all of whom we want to use in this sequel.
BLADE: Any thoughts on Armistead Maupin or the late Paul Monette (other gay writers of note)?
KRAMER: Paul was a dear friend and I am friendly with Armistead and I admire their work. I know many of the gay writers today and feel uncomfortable commenting on their work.
BLADE: Did you see the 2012 “Normal Heart” production at Arena Stage in Washington? Any thoughts?
KRAMER: I loved what Arena did. It was especially moving to me because when I was a kid, I went to see many of their productions in that small remodeled old movie theater on New York Avenue.
BLADE: How long have you been with David? Once you recovered, how did it feel to be married?
KRAMER: I first started dating David in the mid-‘60s. We dated for many years but he didn’t want to be pinned down. We finally got together permanently in 1995 or so and got married just a year or so ago. I promptly got very sick and spent almost a year in and out of hospitals. He saved my life several times when doctors were not helping; he found the right ones. It is certainly not the marriage one wanted to have, lover and caregiver. His own career as an architect has suffered as he worries for me. We have both certainly been put to the test and it has brought us even closer together.
BLADE: Has he read “The American People”? If so, what did he say?
KRAMER: He was one of the first people who read the earliest draft. He has a great memory of what and who I’ve written about, which is invaluable. He has always been a big fan, even of ‘Faggots,’ which is about our earlier go-round. He’s the dinky character who breaks Fred’s heart.
BLADE: Plans for your 80th birthday?
KRAMER: To carry on writing and staying alive!
BLADE: Barney Frank said this in his recent memoir: “If you care deeply about an issue and are engaged in group activity on its behalf that is fun and inspiring and heightens your sense of solidarity with others, you are almost certainly not doing your cause any good.” Do you agree?
KRAMER: Joseph Papp, who produced the original “Normal Heart” at the Public Theater said much the same thing to me, to wit: “If you haven’t offended someone, then you haven’t done something right.”