Novelist Thomas Mallon looks back on the early years of the AIDS epidemic
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. Living through the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s is the subject of Thomas Mallon's diaries that were recently excerpted in The New Yorker. He was in his 30s then, living in Manhattan, watching his boyfriend, friends and fellow churchgoers get sick and die, leaving Mallon in a constant state of anxiety over if and when he'd get the death sentence.
Mallon is best-known for his historical novels. His new one, "Up With The Sun," ends where the journal excerpts begin. The novel, which our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, calls dazzling, is based on the life of a pretty obscure actor named Dick Kallman, a closeted gay actor in the '50s and '60s who never quite made it. He was part of Lucille Ball's Desilu Workshop, co-starred in the Broadway musical "Seventeen," starred in a touring production of "How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying" and starred in a short-lived sitcom called "Hank." And his roles dried up. He went into the antiques business with Dolores Gray, who starred in several movie musicals. In 1980, Kallman and his boyfriend were murdered in their Manhattan apartment by robbers, a murder that made the tabloids.
An earlier novel by Thomas Mallon, "Fellow Travelers," is about two gay men working for the State Department during the lavender scare, when the anti-communist witch hunt of the 1950s was also a witch hunt for gay people, who were driven out of their jobs. The novel has been adapted into a Showtime series scheduled to premiere later this year. Mallon has also written novels about Watergate, Nixon and the couple who shared Lincoln's box seats at the Ford Theater the night he was assassinated.
Thomas Mallon, welcome to FRESH AIR. You're such a good writer.
THOMAS MALLON: Thanks.
GROSS: Why did you want to write about this actor Dick Kallman? I certainly had never heard of him before. I imagine most of the people in our audience have never heard of him either.
MALLON: I used to watch his sitcom in 1965-66, which was the one year it was on. I was 13 years old at the time, and I desperately wanted to go to college. And...
GROSS: It was called "Hank," by the way...
GROSS: ...For anyone who wants to know. Yeah.
MALLON: The conceit was that he played a college drop-in. He didn't have the money for tuition, but he was desperate to get an education. And so he would disguise himself as other students. And he was always one step ahead of the registrar, who was chasing him. It was sort of charming and preposterous. And I used to watch it, and he sort of stuck with me, and the program stuck with me. And lo and behold, you know, in 1980, he's murdered - long since out of show business - murdered in upper Manhattan, the east side of Manhattan. And I heard about this. And I began squirreling away clippings many years later, and I would set it aside. I really started to write the book in earnest around 2008, then set it aside for a decade to write this political trilogy set in Washington, and then went back to it and fortunately in time enough to talk to a number of people who had known him and to be able to reconstruct the story as well as I could.
GROSS: By the way, "Hank" had a theme song. The sitcom "Hank" had a theme song with a lyric written by Johnny Mercer. I mean, that's pretty classy.
MALLON: That was about the only really distinguished thing about the program.
GROSS: Yeah. Could you sing the lyric?
MALLON: The first line of it is (singing) he's up with the sun, and he's got the college winging as he goes about another swinging day.
And the conceit was that he was constantly doing odd jobs to earn money. He was raising his little sister because their parents were dead. I mean, it was kind of a comic tear-jerker in some ways, and there was a tremendous sweetness to the character as well as a lot of gumption. Kallman in real life had plenty of gumption, but, I think, very little sweetness.
GROSS: I think people might have caught that first line of the lyric, he's up with the sun. That's where the title of your novel, "Up With the Sun," comes from.
GROSS: Yeah. So what kind of research did you do about what it meant to be gay and closeted on Broadway and in Hollywood? You know, one of the obvious differences is, like, on Broadway, so many men traditionally, you know, have been gay including some of the best, like, songwriters who ever wrote for Broadway musicals. In Hollywood, I think there was a big gay, closeted population, but probably not as big as on Broadway.
MALLON: Well, you know, I talked to people who had known Kallman and went through any number of hundreds and hundreds of clippings and reviews and everything. And, you know, it was the time when - later in the '50s, when he was trying to get a foothold in Hollywood, he would be set up on dates, you know, by his age and dates, needless to say, with young women and who were sort of aware or not aware that they were really, you know, functioning as beards for this. The lockdown, it - you - as you say, you would think, of all places, Broadway would be a place where, to a certain extent, you could be yourself. But I don't think that was really very true.
I spoke a few years ago to Rita Gardner, who was the original female lead in "The Fantasticks," which ran for decades and decades off-Broadway. And she played the part opposite Kenneth Nelson, who figures in this book. He knew Kallman. Their careers sort of dovetailed each other in some ways for a number of years. And Kenneth Nelson was much beloved by people who worked with him. And Rita told me that - you know, she says, of course, I knew Kenny was gay, and sometimes I would see him troubled or down about something. And she says, as amazing as it sounds now, you just couldn't ask. Even in the world of off-Broadway theater, it was just too hot to handle back in those days. And she was remembering this in her 80s, and she was just shaking her head over it.
GROSS: Well, another thing that closeted actors on Broadway and also in Hollywood had to deal with is the gossip columnists 'cause...
GROSS: They could out you. I don't know if this is a real quote from Earl Wilson, who was a gossip columnist at The New York Post at the time. But in one of his columns, he wrote, which restaurant chain has been purging its New York branches of swishes?
MALLON: That's for real. That's for real.
GROSS: That's for real.
MALLON: Yeah. And there would be these obliquely phrased items about people. The gossip columnist had a tremendously hard edge. I remember - I was a great reader of the newspaper from the time I was about 7 years old. And I remember writers, like Dorothy Kilgallen, writing about show business, sometimes writing about politics, too. And there was a hard edge, and if they took a dislike to somebody, they made these nasty little crusades against them. And this was the shame that could not speak its name, let alone the love that could not speak its name. But gossip columnists did find a way of getting it into the papers. For instance, here in Washington, where I live, The Washington Evening Star, a wonderful old paper - if you read it in the 1950s, the only time there's ever an overt mention of homosexuality is when somebody gets arrested.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then, we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Thomas Mallon. His new novel, "Up With The Sun," is based on the life of Dick Kallman a little-remembered closeted gay actor in the 1950s and '60s. The New Yorker recently published excerpts of his AIDS diaries from the 1980s. We'll talk about that soon. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF WILLIE NILE SONG, "I'M ON FIRE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Thomas Mallon. His new novel, "Up With The Sun," is based on the life of Dick Kallman, a little-remembered closeted gay actor in the 1950s and '60s. The New Yorker recently published excerpts of the journal Mallon kept in the 1980s about living through the AIDS epidemic, watching his friends die, and wondering if he'd get a death sentence, too. The journal was published under the title "Finding My Way - And Staying Alive - During The AIDS Crisis: A Diary Of 1980s Manhattan."
Thomas Mallon, your novel "Up With The Sun" ends at about the same time that your diary excerpts recently published in The New Yorker begins. And those are your diaries - excerpts of your diaries during the AIDS epidemic, the very early days of it, when you were living in Manhattan and so many people you knew had AIDS and were dying or had already died. So let's talk about those diaries. You were in your 30s in the 1980s when AIDS was first identified and then became an epidemic. Who were you then?
MALLON: I was an academic who really wanted to be a writer. I taught at Vassar for about a dozen years. I started there in my late 20s. And while I was still there, I moved to New York. I couldn't take living on campus and sort of being part of the college 24/7. So I rented this ancient, little walk-up apartment right near Grand Central and began trying to extract myself from academic life. And in some ways, I was living my 20s in my 30s. I even wrote about that somewhere. I was getting some traction as a writer. I was beginning to write a lot of literary journalism. I was starting to write fiction on my own. And I was doing this in a way with very little risk in my life compared to the way most young writers in New York have to operate. I was a tenured professor at this fancy college and then, you know, saw my way out of that.
But whereas there was very little risk financially for me, very little risk professionally for me, I was suddenly engulfed in risk that all of my friends were. I was - when it came to romance, I was rather a late bloomer, but not late enough that I wasn't worried that one involvement in particular that I had had would likely render me sick at some point. And we were - my friends and I, we were all beset with anxieties of one kind or another and had to make decisions and consider contingencies.
I remembered, coming across something in the diary - I was writing a book about plagiarism and - but I desperately wanted to write this second novel. And I was trying to think whether I dared to start the novel. And I thought, no, if I get sick, I'll probably have two years left, and I don't want to go out of the world with the two books half-written. I'll stick with the book I'm working on now, the plagiarism book. And if I have to die, I will then at least have that book out in the world. And that was how one thought in those days - even while, at the same time, I was in love with New York, I was in love with the little bit of literary progress I was making. My friends and I were having lives. We were having romance and so forth.
GROSS: What was it like rereading your diaries to edit them and then publish them? - because, like, you write historical novels and what was the present to you when you were writing those journals, that's now the past. That's now history. That's an artifact of a turning point in history. So what was it like seeing your life as history?
MALLON: Strange. It provoked feelings of embarrassment - one's diaries always do that if they have any kind of, I think, authenticity to them - tremendous feelings of gratitude that I had never gotten sick and that I was here to write all the books that came in between those diaries and today. I was struck, though, by the immediacy of them. With editors at The New Yorker, there was some discussion at some point about my writing a retrospective essay about the time and simply quoting from the diaries, even quoting liberally from them, but situating them in a sort of retrospective point of view. And I argued against this because I thought if the diaries had any value at all, it was their immediacy, the sense that the person writing this did not know what was going to happen...
MALLON: ...Did not know what it meant yet. And when I reread them after so many years, what struck me immediately was a kind of manic quality to them. There are entries where I am just absolutely slap-happy. You know, I'm having my first author photograph taken, or I'm going to some literary party that I never would have expected to be invited to years before. And the next day, all of that will come crashing down because there's been some terrible piece of AIDS news either in the newspapers or, you know, in my own world - somebody I knew was sick. And it seemed to me at the time - and the diaries brought this back to me - that I was living in a world where it was always going to be impossible to be happy for very long, that there would be these short bursts, but this looming, terrible destructiveness was always going to be out there.
GROSS: You know, just a little stray sentence in those diaries was about having a great view of Manhattan when you dined one day at Windows on the World, which was the restaurant on top of the World Trade Center.
GROSS: And a few years later, that would be totally demolished in the terrorist attack on 9/11. What was it like for you to reread that sentence and realize this, like, little factoid tucked away in your journal was...
MALLON: Yeah. Certain things...
GROSS: ...Part of this...
GROSS: ...Like, national nightmare?
MALLON: Yes, these little things that jump out at you and that, you know, you never expected to see. And, of course, at the time you're writing it, you don't think that you could ever reread this and have it mean something completely different from what it appeared to mean to you as you actually wrote the sentence. There are all these things that, you know, one has forgotten. Sometimes the smallest things that you write - the smallest incidents, remarks that you heard, overheard - sometimes those are the things I found in a diary that evoke bigger things much more powerfully than if you had been writing about the big thing directly.
GROSS: Yeah. During the period that your AIDS diaries cover, the period published in The New Yorker, your boyfriend at the time died of AIDS early in the epidemic. He was 31. You hadn't been seeing each other that long. Were you close enough where you felt like you were the one to take care of him?
MALLON: No. I mean, I wouldn't say that. But it was a short and very rocky romance. And it, you know, had all of the difficulties that any romance can encounter. But at the end, when he was very sick throughout 1984 - and he died in October of 1984. At the very end, I became very close to his mother and close, really, to the rest of his family. And I remember the hospital and the harrowing nature of his illness that went on month after month. This was the time when if you visited somebody with AIDS in the hospital, they practically put you in a hazmat suit, you know? You were wearing masks and gloves and so forth. And nobody knew very much. And this was very early to have that. The gift, to me, was really his whole family, especially his mother, who remained my friends for decades. And I wound up having Thanksgiving every year with his mother. And I would bring my longtime partner, Bill, to New York.
And, again, all of life really is a novel. You just live it instead of writing it. But it always has its odd turns and its strange narrative arcs. But that was a particularly painful time, the time that Tom was still alive and suffering. And I have not really even been able to go back to that diary. The diaries that were excerpted in The New Yorker start in 1985. They run from '85 to '88. And I'm sort of living in the aftermath of that. And I'm probably going to do a book of these diaries for my publisher, Knopf. And I'm going to have to go back to the diaries when Tom was still alive. And that's going to be a hard task for me.
GROSS: Did you visit him in the hospital? And were you afraid that if you did, you would contract AIDS because, as you said, people didn't know yet how it was spread?
MALLON: I don't remember that fear in the hospital. I remember the fear of - a fear that lasted for years - that I would contract it simply because of the things we had done together before he was sick. But the atmosphere in the hospital was just dreadful. And there was almost a science fiction aspect to it. One of the sort of themes or one of the plots, if you could use that word, to the diaries that were excerpted in The New Yorker - this is around 1986, '87 - was my internal drama, wondering not just whether I was going to get sick or not, but should I have the test? The test was new in those days.
GROSS: Yeah, you were terrified to have the test.
MALLON: I was very frightened to have the test. I did not have the test until 1991. At that point, there was really nothing they could do for you. So what was the point of knowing? You already knew how you could protect yourself from infection. You already knew how you could protect others from infection. And if you happen to have the virus, if you were sick, there was very little that they could do for you. Eventually, I mean, there was AZT was the first significant medication. But the side effects of it were absolutely horrific. And so I remember for years, I opted for not knowing.
GROSS: And what changed your mind in 1991 when you got tested?
MALLON: Well, I was partnered by that point. And I felt that the likelihood that I was sick was pretty small by that point. It would have manifested itself already in one way or another. So I was, you know, able to do that. But even in those days, in the early '90s, you would get tested. And you would wait for two weeks for the result, as opposed to, you know, having a pinprick of blood taken from you today and getting the results within less than a minute.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Thomas Mallon. Excerpts of his journals from the 1980s during the AIDS epidemic were recently published in The New Yorker. His new novel is called "Up With The Sun." We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "LIFE ON MARS?")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Thomas Mallon. His new novel, "Up With The Sun," is based on the life of Dick Kallman, a little-remembered closeted gay actor in the 1950s and '60s. The New Yorker recently published excerpts of the journal he kept in the 1980s about living in Manhattan during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, watching his friends die and wondering if he'd get a death sentence, too. When we left off, he was explaining that, for years, he was afraid to get tested, fearing he'd be positive. But in 1991, after he had a partner, he decided to do it, and he tested negative.
How did it change your life when you knew that you were negative?
MALLON: It made me feel that I could keep living and keep enjoying my life. There were so many things I loved about my life. Even during the worst days of the epidemic in New York, when there was nothing to be done for anybody like Tom or so many of my friends, I absolutely loved my life. I was very driven. I was very hardworking. I was ambitious. I wanted to be a writer. I felt I was getting a late start as a writer, and suddenly things were happening. And I just remember the feeling that I'm not going to have to - maybe until I'm, you know, much older, I'm not going to have to sit down with that diary again and tote up the pros and cons of trying to write a second book while I'm writing a first one because I might not be around to finish them within a couple of years.
GROSS: So you were so relieved to know that your death was not imminent. You are 71 now. Have your thoughts about aging been affected by how afraid you were that you were going to die in your 30s?
MALLON: I think it would be impossible for those thoughts and feelings not to have been affected. I am so aware of how lucky I was. And, I mean, I've enjoyed rude good health for almost my whole life. I'd like that to continue for a while, but I like to think that - you know, when things fall apart that I'll be able to accept that with a certain amount of greater grace because I know that it could so easily - all of those intervening decades could so easily have been denied to me by life. And I don't know. That'll be a test of my character, I guess, when it comes.
GROSS: Yeah. During the epidemic, when you were so uncertain about whether you would be dead soon or not and you didn't want to take the test to find out whether you tested positive for HIV, did you ever try to be celibate? Or, I mean, like, how afraid were you?
MALLON: Very unsuccessfully.
GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah, right, right, right. You know, you're Catholic, so that brings a natural amount of guilt about sex. You're gay. Add a lot more guilt to that, being Catholic. And then it's the AIDS epidemic. Add a lot of fear and maybe guilt about engaging in any kind of sexual act because, you know, there's so much uncertainty, especially before anyone really knew how to protect against AIDS or how it was spread. Can you talk about the feelings of, like, guilt or fear that you had when engaging in any kind of intimacy with another man?
MALLON: I think those were always present. They went hand in hand. You thought, well, I know the score. The person I'm with knows the score. And, you know, we'll protect each other, but we can't stop living. And I saw a good friend of mine, Greg Ullmann (ph), who I saw a lot in the '80s. And I saw him last fall. We were talking about this when the diaries were about to come out, and we talked about how we did our best to go on living and to just somehow go forward and assume that things might work out right. But life's contradictions and life's ambivalences - you never get rid of them.
And, you know, I was - I am a very lapsed Catholic. If I lapsed any further, I don't know what circle of hell I'd be in, but I still missed my faith. To this day, I miss my faith in that it was being gay that drove me away from the church. There was very little way in which one could reconcile those two things and be comfortable. I was also - politically was always much more conservative than my friends, particularly where foreign policy was concerned, things like that. And it was very, very difficult for me to be politically conservative. I was never a social conservative for all the obvious reasons.
But like Timothy Laughlin in "Fellow Travelers," I grew up believing Catholic. I grew up very much an anti-communist. And I, as I grew older, grew through adolescence and into adulthood, I saw no reason why those three things should be incompatible. I really didn't. And yet, if you were a believer in a somewhat conservative worldview geopolitically, that was a very, very difficult political position to have when the very people you admired for their anti-communism and, you know, their stand for liberty did not extend to gay people.
GROSS: Let me stop you here for a second because my question had to do with, did you try to be celibate, and we're talking about politics.
MALLON: I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Yeah.
GROSS: No, no, no, no, no. We're talking about politics now and how your circle of friends was not conservative, how hard it was to be conservative politically, not socially but politically. Did that interfere with your romantic life?
MALLON: Oh, I can remember lots of arguments and debates, certainly. And, I mean, some of them continue to this day. And, you know, being a historical novelist, you get to revisit some of these things. And I wrote a book called "Finale," which was set during the second term of Ronald Reagan's presidency. A lot of it revolves around the famous summit at Reykjavik with Mikhail Gorbachev. And there's a character there, Anders Little - fictional character - who is engaged in national security matters and is very much a Cold Warrior of my age. But he's also coming to terms with being gay, and he is struggling with the fact that he is having to work in an administration which is not doing anything for people that he loves and people who are in trouble and people who are even facing death.
And I think that that, you know, has been sort of a motif in my life. I've argued with my conservative friends that their positions on certain social issues are beyond the pale, unacceptable to me. And I've certainly argued with my gay friends that I wasn't comfortable with a one-size-fits-all politics, that my politics were a bit different from that. I was still very much Timothy Laughlin in "Fellow Travelers." You know, E.M. Forster talks in one of his essays about not liking hundred-percenters, and that's something that's always stuck with me. I think that the political divide that exists today, which I can't imagine really writing about in fiction, is made worse by the fact that everybody is so dug in that no one ever surprises anyone else with their politics. If somebody expresses their politics, you know, in personal conversation, you sort of - if they express one piece of their politics, you sort of infer the whole rest of it from what they've said. And the middle ground has just kind of disappeared beneath our feet.
GROSS: I want to get back to what you experienced personally in the '80s. You know, you write in your diaries, I always fall for the truly cold, cold people, cold men because I decide their reserve and awkwardness is really bottled-up warmth that they're waiting for me to release, an act for which they'll repay me with extravagant love. I think that is a really common thing, thinking that somebody who's cold or unemotional on the surface is just, like, hiding their sensitivity that's underneath and that once you kind of connect with that sensitivity, they'll open up and be really warm and appreciate that you allowed them to do it.
MALLON: I think that's one of the passages in the diary that has a certain universality to it. I mean, I think that that's a common thing among homosexuals, among heterosexuals. I think a lot of heterosexual women might recognize themselves in that passage, particularly from, you know, what's now a couple of generations ago. The complexities of love are more universal than not. And if they weren't, there wouldn't be anything like fiction. Gay people couldn't read straight novels. Straight people couldn't read gay novels. A certain degree of identification has been a part of fiction from the very beginning, from when the novel starts in the 18th century. You have to see yourself to some degree in at least some of the characters in the book. But often you see yourself in characters who are nothing like you in terms of gender, circumstance, whatever. But there's some emotional aspect of them that allows you to say, that's me as well.
GROSS: Well, I think it's time to take another break. So let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Thomas Mallon. The New Yorker recently published excerpts of the journal he kept in the 1980s about living through the AIDS epidemic, watching his friends die and wondering if he'd get a death sentence, too. His latest novel is called "Up With The Sun." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF PAQUITO D'RIVERA'S "CONTRADANZA")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Thomas Mallon. His latest novel is called "Up With The Sun." His diaries about living through the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s were recently excerpted in The New Yorker, and his novel "Fellow Travelers" will soon be adapted into a Showtime series that's expected to premiere sometime later this year.
In your journals, you refer - and, again, this is in the 1980s. You refer to the old homosexuality versus the new homosexuality. You, being in your 30s then, would have been part of the new homosexuality. What was the difference to you then?
MALLON: I think, you know, and very often at that age, just as at this age, I'm talking through my hat. And, you know, in a diary, you're - every diary entry is a kind of thought experiment. You're trying things out. You're considering things. You're wondering about things. I think that passage occurs when I was briefly dating an older man, and I saw - I was seeing couples who had managed to live as couples domestically and had their own kind of somewhat sealed-off world. But they were living the way married gay people would live today.
And at the time, just as I was afraid of sexual abandon, I was also afraid of domesticity. Two men keeping house together did not seem natural to me in the 1980s, and that was my blinkered self. That was my self-loathing. That was my prejudice against certain things. Now, when I look back on what I guess I'm referring to as the old homosexuality there and I'm thinking of these sort of domestic arrangements that people managed to have in the face of no liberties whatsoever, I look back on those people, and I think, that's another group of people who were much braver than I would ever have been.
GROSS: Since you referred to the old and the new homosexuality, now that you are in your early 70s, do you think you're considered by younger people - by younger gay people to be part of the old homosexuality?
MALLON: Sure. Yeah.
GROSS: What do you see as some of the generational differences?
MALLON: Well, I suppose the most striking one, of course, would be gay marriage, which didn't exist, was not remotely on the horizon, back in the 1980s. And it does exist today. And I think that gay marriage is a wonderful thing. It's a wonderful option. I'm somewhat surprised that it seems, in many ways, to be more of a replication of straight marriage than I imagined it would be. I imagined that gay marriage would be something slightly different, maybe. But that old homosexuality that I was referring to, those domestic arrangements and so forth that people had, because they were not marriage - there may have been tremendous devotion between the two people. But infidelity, to use a very old-fashioned term, was not the crisis or the catastrophe that it would be in, say, a heterosexual marriage. So there's that to consider as well, I guess.
GROSS: At what point in your life did you feel like domesticity was OK? I'm making an assumption here that you live with your longtime partner.
MALLON: I do. And I think it was the night very early on when Bill said to me - because I still lived like a graduate student in this little studio apartment. And I worked - talk about up with the sun, I was always up with the sun working. And I would work all day, and I would race out, you know, to the Korean grocer for takeout and bring it back and go back to my desk and whatever. And I remember one night, a few months into our being together in 1989, he said, don't you understand? I want to make a home for you. And I was absolutely thunderstruck by that. And I realized that that was not confinement. It was love. And I haven't cooked a meal in 30 years. And he'll make some very...
GROSS: Because he cooks?
MALLON: He makes a very good home. He meant it literally, you know, in terms of all the things that go into making a comfortable home, all of which he was - is wonderful at. But I think - you know, by that time, I was in my late 30s, getting close to 40, and that was another sea change in my life.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you again. If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Thomas Mallon, and excerpts of his journals, his AIDS journals from the 1980s, were recently published in The New Yorker. His new novel is called "Up With The Sun." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE HADEN'S "EL CIEGO (THE BLIND)")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Thomas Mallon. His latest novel, "Up With The Sun," is based on the life of Dick Kallman, a little-remembered closeted gay actor in the 1950s and '60s. The New Yorker recently published excerpts of the journal Mallon kept in the 1980s about living through the AIDS epidemic.
In your latest novel, "Up With The Sun," one of the characters says, all my life, I've loved the past as a place that can keep you safe from the present - an inert world, sleeping and finished, that can't push you around, a place that your imagination can make as pretty as the two-dimensional flats on a Broadway set. Is that a sentiment you share? And is that one of the reasons why you write historical fiction?
MALLON: Yes, I think so. I think that's me speaking through Matt, my fictional pianist in "Up With The Sun." I think that's always been a theme in my books. I wrote a novel many years ago called "Dewey Defeats Truman," which was all set during the summer and fall of 1948 in a little town in Michigan that had been Thomas E. Dewey's hometown. And there's an old man in that book named Horace Sinclair, and he expresses a lot of my preference for the past - the idea that the past is the present perfected, somehow put in amber, somehow an easier place to live in. He's the one who says, you know, some people, when they pass a house, when they're walking on the street, they wonder who lives there. And he, when he walks past the house, always wonders who used to live there.
GROSS: Of course, you often write about unsafe parts of the past - you know, writing about having to be closeted if you're an actor in the '50s and '60s - well, having to be closeted kind of if you were anybody (laughter) back then. In "Fellow Travelers," you were writing about the anti-gay witch hunts of the '50s during the whole McCarthy period, when there were the anti-communist witch hunts. And in a way, like, the past is repeating again in terms of LGBTQ issues. I mean, you've got a lot of people in the Republican Party who want to overturn the legality of gay marriage. You've got these, like, new anti-drag laws. So do you feel like the - that the past is repeating itself in terms of gay rights?
MALLON: I don't think there's any going back. I think we're in a long, ugly moment politically. And I would say to anybody who believes in liberty and who believes in many of the things that I always believed in in terms of a good, robust American foreign policy that tried to spread liberty through the world, tried to defend liberty through the world, what I would say to those people is get out of the Republican Party. Get out. And if you're still in it - and I can't imagine why anybody could have been in it after 2016 - get out of it. And try to form a third force, a third force in which you can stand up for people's rights, including LGBTQ rights, at home and you can continue to believe all of the things that you always believed and fought for at home and abroad. But I think unless we have a third force in the United States where there is a middle ground, we're in for terrible political times.
GROSS: One of the problems I sometimes have with, like, biopics and, you know, historical movies and historical novels is that you come away from it feeling like you've really learned a lot about the past. At the same time, you don't know what's fiction and what's fact in that piece of work that you've just come away from. How do you deal with that as a writer? Like, what are your thoughts about that as somebody who's actually creating the historical fiction? Like, with Dick Kallman, it didn't - it wasn't really an issue for him because I had no idea who he was. I was just like...
GROSS: I just, like, let myself enjoy the book.
MALLON: I once wrote an essay called "The Historical Novelist's Burden Of Truth." And it is a very tricky business because if you are dealing with real people, you are necessarily going to ascribe to them opinions, feelings, thoughts that they may have had or may not have had. And one of the purposes of historical fiction, I think, is that it does allow a writer to speculate, to imagine. I mean, if you're writing a book about Watergate, as I did, a novel about Watergate, you operate differently from a historian. The historian would have to say, it is not implausible to think that at this moment, Mr. Nixon may have thought. If you're a historical novelist, you just have him go ahead and think it. It's the way you dramatize, the way you imagine things.
But I think ultimately, it comes down to truth in labeling. A novel is a novel. I've very often had people write to me and come up to me and very kindly say, I learned so much history from your book. And I always want to say, be careful, because by the time I get to the end of one of these novels, there are certain things in them that I can't quite remember, did I make that up, or did that come from the record?
GROSS: Oh, really? That's a strange feeling to have.
MALLON: Fiction is fiction. I mean, there's a caveat I've applied to the prefaces or afterwards of a number of my historical novels, which is that nouns always trump adjectives, and it's important to remember in the phrase historical fiction which is which. Fiction is the noun, which means that historical novels are always fiction. Historical is the adjective. The history is weaker than the fiction. Don't trust the history. Read the fiction.
GROSS: Thomas Mallon, a pleasure speaking with you. Thank you so much.
MALLON: Same here. Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Thomas Mallon's new novel is called "Up With The Sun." Excerpts of his AIDS diaries were published in The New Yorker in December. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews about why police violence and misconduct so often go unpunished or our episode collecting excerpts of our interviews with Jimmy Carter, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. And just a reminder that you can subscribe to our weekly newsletter for free on our website, freshair.npr.org. You'll find behind-the-scenes stories from our producers, links to the week's interviews and reviews and staff recommendations. I'm always delighted to see it in my email Saturday mornings.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering today from Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
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