The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, PEN America’s Director, PEN Across America William Johnson speaks with John Weir, author of Your Nostalgia is Killing Me (Red Hen Press, 2022). The winner of the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, Your Nostalgia is Killing Me maps the life of a gay man who has “lived through fifty years of the twin crises of global AIDS and toxic masculinity in America.” Amazon, Bookshop.

The writer John Weir (USA), New York, New York, August 21, 2020. Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan

1. The title of your book Your Nostalgia is Killing Me, seems to be an ironic one. The protagonist’s nostalgia is seemingly running havoc on his own life. He can’t escape revisiting the past and all the losses he has incurred: losses in love, familial losses, and the loss wrought by the AIDS epidemic. Do you mind giving some insight into your own personal views on nostalgia and how it affected the narrative thrust of your book?

2. You choose to title your book after Vincent Chevalier and Ian Bradley-Perrin’s art project “Your Nostalgia is Killing Me.” How do you feel their work thematically ties to your novel?
May I answer questions 1 and 2 at once? Backstory: In 2013, in the middle of winter, a bunch of queer people in the US and Canada jumped online and had a 24/7 days-long fight about whether or not ACT UP New York, and AIDS activists who were (at the time, in 2013) in their 50s and 60s, had co-opted the “AIDS narrative” so thoroughly that people in their twenties and thirties were living with a kind of erasure of their lives and diagnoses and experiences. 

The trigger was indeed a piece of visual art by two Canadians, Chevalier and Bradley-Perrin’s Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me. Somebody from ACT UP NY saw the art and got mad about it, and a quick, snarky art critique turned into a huge inter-generational fight about AIDS nostalgia.

From the ACT UPpers: “How dare you call into question the life-saving work we did the ‘80s and ‘90s, you ungrateful brats?” From the artists and their supporters: “How dare you soak up all the media attention about AIDS, such that the global AIDS crisis is now depicted as a quaint 20th-century crisis that a handful of gay white guys solved?”

I saw everyone’s point. Mostly, I was aware that the online battle was set against the context of the mainstream media deciding that it was time to give “the AIDS crisis” its fifteen minutes of fame, twenty-five years after ACT UP New York staged its first action, on Wall Street, near the New York Stock Exchange.

Suddenly, in 2012 and into 2013, “the AIDS crisis” was being treated as historic; it was being rendered as a conceptual theme park. AIDS activism as a memory play, with a handful of people cast as the leading players. But ACT UP New York was not like that, it was famously leaderless; and there is no “grand narrative” that accounts for its history, its accomplishments, and failures. Yet here were the print and electronic media with their nostalgia-inducing “AIDS crisis,” as if the crisis were over as if it could be reduced to a five-minute news spot where “activists” reminisced about “storming” government buildings in order to keep their lovers alive.

It’s terrible to be turned into a human interest story on the nightly news, particularly when the story is about fear and hatred and death and survival and the precise collusion of the mainstream media with the homophobic institutions, political, social, medical, that preferred to let a bunch of queers and Black people (particularly Black women, who made up the second largest group of AIDS deaths in New York City in the late 1980s) die.

By the way, if you google the title of my book, Chevalier and Bradley-Perrin’s artwork comes up, first! So I’m advertising their project, which is a fun outcome.

“For me, information is lifesaving—or can be—and I have an obligation to share what I know about growing up in a homophobic culture. The older I get, the more I feel this urgency: to say what AIDS was and still is.”

3. Your propulsive novel offers a series of well-executed character sketches (of the protagonist’s friends, lovers, and family members). What interests you about centering character-based insight versus a novel singularly driven by plot?
Thanks for calling it “propulsive!” I can’t follow plot. I still don’t know who Rosebud is! (That’s a joke I thought everyone would get, but it turns out a lot of people have never seen Citizen Kane. I’m old.) I watch tons of movies and never know what happens. Liv Ullmann crying is as much plot as I can stand. If you have a person in the room, something is going to happen. Isn’t that enough? What does Bela Tarr say? “The actors will come from here and go there, and afterwards leave there.” That’s my understanding of plot. As for characters: just watching people do what they do is fascinating and appalling and inexplicable enough, or am I misreading Trump’s election?

4. Do you feel your queerness has particularly influenced your aesthetics?
My aesthetics were shaped mostly by I Love Lucy. Is that queer? It was on Channel 5 twice a day in rural northwestern New Jersey in the 1960s and ‘70s, at like 6:00 and 6:30 at night, and my brother and I had a tiny black and white TV in our bedroom, and a picnic table where we ate Swanson’s Hungry Man TV dinners, while we watched every episode of I Love Lucy over and over, all the while feeding chunks of Salisbury steak to the dogs.

The literal dogs. Our house was a doghouse where people happened to live. My family was queer. My mother rode a retired racehorse bareback in the woods, and my father commuted to Manhattan, where he helped launch satellites into the air so NBC could broadcast Bob Hope specials to the people of France.

My brother and I were nothing like the kids we went to school with. Their whole thing was sports. I couldn’t even hold a ball, much less hit or catch or throw one. But I’m the gay one, and my brother isn’t, so what does the environment have to do with how you turn out? Children are cruel. Oh, and so many people “claim their queerness” lately, I feel like the word no longer has much meaning–or it has so many meanings (which, yay!) that it’s perilous to apply it generally.

I’m trying to answer your question and failing. Okay, this: Clarity. I want to be clear. As a writer, I mean. When I started writing fiction, in the 1980s, when I was in my twenties, and I was writing about AIDS, and death, and loss, and homophobia, and the shock of discovering that being in a bar full of gay men was in some ways even worse for your self-esteem than the 7th grade, I wanted more than anything to be as clear as possible about what it was like to grow up in the 1960s and ‘70s in an intensely homophobic culture, and then to move to New York in the early 1980s, at the same time as AIDS, and to think to yourself, “This makes gym class look easy.” 

I wanted my readers to feel that. I can’t afford to be obscure. Lots of fiction writers glory in confusion, enigma, and withheld information. For me, information is lifesaving—or can be—and I have an obligation to share what I know about growing up in a homophobic culture. The older I get, the more I feel this urgency: to say what AIDS was and still is. What queerness was like before Pete Buttigieg and Modern Family. So I guess my queer aesthetic is this: to be clear.

5. What do you hope readers, who may not have experienced the height of the AIDS epidemic or the brutal homophobia that took place in the United States during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, glean from your novel?
Here’s the thing: I don’t think of my book as being about the first fifteen years of the global AIDS crisis, 1981-1996. Sure, much of it takes place during that period. So does a lot of fiction published in the past forty years. I would not have been able to write about a guy living through that era without talking about AIDS. I’m surprised anyone can.

I remember, in 2006 and 2007, reading three new books by renowned authors, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, John Updike’s Terrorist, and Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost, each of them dealing explicitly with death and destruction, and thinking, “Is it possible that Joan Didion has never met anyone who died?” Until her husband’s death? She worked in the film industry. Her daughter was best pals with Natasha Richardson, whose stage and film director father Tony Richardson died of AIDS. Updike, Roth, had they never met a person with AIDS? Had they never been in New York or Los Angeles or even Boston in the 1980s? And yet these three books treated death like a terrible unexpected tragedy that had happened, or would soon happen, only to them.

How was it possible to be a member of, broadly speaking, the American entertainment industry, and not know anyone who died of AIDS, during the final twenty years of the 20th century?

Death and loss from AIDS were the given of the place—the donnée, a Didion word—in New York and California, in that period. Not just there, of course. AIDS was and is a global scourge. But I’m talking about the bubbles in which these writers—and many others like them?—lived. (Updike and Roth both lived in New England, but their professional lives were administered in New York.)

“The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new” is the first line of Samuel Beckett’s Murphy, and that was how the global AIDS crisis felt in the 1980s and ‘90s: daily, inevitable, maybe permanent. Inescapable. Your fate.

As for what my book’s about—my elevator pitch!—it’s about a guy who is taught from age eleven that his sexuality and gender performance were everyone’s business but his, and that, in a profound and also everyday sense, he had never had any privacy. To be the subject, the target, the unending subject of bullying and abuse from the fifth grade, is perhaps to experience yourself as both rejected and central. 

To the issue of the ongoing crisis of high school bullying and culturally mandated homophobia, I’ll quote queer anthropologist and legendary lesbian author Esther Newton, subject of Jean Carlomusto’s new documentary, Esther Newton Made Me Gay: “Adolescent and even childhood bullying of queers is so widespread, so painful and the effects so long-lasting, that this is a subject that can’t be written about too much.”

“I wanted the book to read like nonfiction, but that doesn’t mean that everything in it happened in exactly that way to those people at that time. I like the phrase “documentary fiction,” which is what I try to write.

6. You were an active member of ACT-UP in the 1990s. How do your activism and sense of justice inform your work?

I’m an injustice junky. I can’t resist virtue signaling and righteous rage. Because I’m an Aquarius? Maybe because I came online, reached the age of reason, in the 1960s, during the final years of what we now call the Civil Rights Era; and because my father worked for network television as a kind of telecommunications coordinator, which required his being involved in TV coverage of every national news event in the 1960s and ‘70s. Broadcasting social and political and economic crises was my father’s job. He was at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, for instance, making sure the violence got aired on national TV. So I took political protest personally, and I longed to be Abbie Hoffman or Bobby Seale or, well, Jane Fonda, but that’s part of another story! 

After the Kent State massacres, in 1970, I saw a picture of a kid in Life magazine wearing a T-shirt with a target tie-dyed on it, and in the middle of the target was the word STUDENT. I wanted to make a T-shirt like that for myself and wear it to school! My mother was having a brief fling with tie-dying, along with macramé, and I begged her to let me make and wear that shirt. But she said, “I don’t think you want to wear that to the 5th grade in Woodglen, New Jersey.” Sometimes I think getting involved in ACT UP and Queer Nation was a delayed response to my mother’s refusal.

Not to be flip, though. One of the reasons I write stuff is just to say what happened. Elizabeth Hardwick’s advice to Robert Lowell! “Why not say what happened?” Of course, Lowell responded by putting Hardwick’s letters into his poems (he was in the midst of dumping her, and her letters were not happy about it). Sleep with a writer, and wake up in print! The paradox of our information-saturated culture is that so many terrible things go unnoticed. Or rather, maybe the irony is that so many terrible things get noticed by everyone, all the time, and yet they continue to happen. Indeed, are meant to happen, and are celebrated by people who profit from catastrophe.

(Do I profit from catastrophe? Given that my book is about the personality-disfiguring aspect of culturally-mandated and enforced homophobia and gender policing? Well, I haven’t made much more than a month’s rent off my new book, so I forgive myself. . .)

7. Is there anything that has surprised you about how readers have responded to the book?
I figured out a long time ago that nobody reads the book you think you’ve written. They read the book they would have written if they were writing your book. I’m not being cynical. Reading is so subjective an experience. I’m mostly surprised just to hear that somebody has bought the thing. 

Some people treat my book as a memoir, or historical fiction, or a nonfiction account of the writer’s life, and maybe that surprises me—the need for a book to fit into a specific category. I’m surprised when people who are big fans of “hybrid works” nonetheless demand that I admit my book is an autobiography. I’m a much worse and more devious person in real life than the guy who narrates the stories in the book, and if I were writing a memoir, I would have admitted—rather than obscured, revised, or deleted—everything I did wrong. I wanted the book to read like nonfiction, but that doesn’t mean that everything in it happened in exactly that way to those people at that time. I like the phrase “documentary fiction,” which is what I try to write.

8. The protagonist’s biographical details dovetail with many of your own, particularly your friendships with the writer David B. Feinberg and one character I am assuming is based on the musician Stephin Merritt. How comfortable are you with readers mapping the protagonist’s life onto your own? Would you consider this novel a work of autofiction? 
Don’t hate me for saying I loathe the word “autofiction.” The word and genre and marketing brand. I hear it as a put-down. Dismissive. Like the writer couldn’t do the hard work, the real writer’s work, of making things up.

First off, writing’s not hard work. Sitting in a booth in a toll plaza on the New Jersey Turnpike is hard work. The boredom, the cold in winter, the heat in summer. The fumes you inhale. For the last five years of my mother’s life, from 2013 to 2018, I spent a lot of time on the Jersey Turnpike, driving back and forth between my Brooklyn apartment and my mother’s home outside Philadelphia, and I got to exchange greetings with many strangers in toll booths! I miss them. The EZ Pass has taken the place of a series of enjoyable 40-second human interactions, between Secaucus and Florence, New Jersey.

Secondly, a person writes what they have to write, and it’s always a challenge, whether you base it on a bad dream you had last night or a bad relationship you had in 2013. I assume that lots of readers will know that I based the David character on, um, David. I gave him all my best lines, though! Who said—Freud, Jung?—that everyone who shows up in your dreams is you. Madame Bovary, c’est moi! Not to compare myself to Flaubert. “David” is as much me as he is David. As for Stephin Merritt, I admire him deeply, but we’ve never met.

“Never wait for anyone to like or even notice your work. They won’t! And even if they do, nothing they say will ever be enough. It can be worse to be praised stupidly than to be trashed accurately. Write what you have to write, and don’t show it to your mother.”

9. What advice would you give to emerging writers?
Don’t be me.

By which I mean: I thought the earth would stop turning on its axis the day my first novel was published, and I’d be given an Oscar just for being me, like Cher. And then I spent twenty years waiting for The New York Times to review it. Never do that! Never wait for anyone to like or even notice your work. They won’t! And even if they do, nothing they say will ever be enough. It can be worse to be praised stupidly than to be trashed accurately. Write what you have to write, and don’t show it to your mother.

10. Are there any books that you like so much that you wish you had written them yourself?
It’s nerve-wracking enough writing my own books, I’d hate to have to write anyone else’s. Right now, because I recently discovered that my great great great great grandparents on my mother’s side were Mormon converts who left England in 1851 in order to sail to America and discover that Zion was Utah, I’m reading Fawn Brodie’s 1945 biography of Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History, which sounds like auto-fiction, ha! I was raised fervently atheist, and the thought that I’m suffering from inter-generational Mormonism is kind of thrilling. (My mother identified as a Druid.)

I wish I were as good a researcher and archivist as Fawn Brodie. Mary McCarthy said in 1961 in “The Fact in Fiction” that it was no longer necessary to write fiction because real life had become so unbelievable that it felt made up. We are fiction. She was thinking about the Nazi holocaust and the atomic bomb, but it seems to me that the past six years of life in America have dissolved the line between fiction and nonfiction, and I don’t see the point of writing a “novel” or a “short fiction collection” unless it includes as many facts as possible about real life in the actual world. Too many people don’t want or believe or like facts, and they need to be reminded that they are still there.

John Weir, winner of the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction for Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me, is the author of two novels, The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket, winner of the 1989 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Men’s Debut Fiction, and What I Did Wrong. He is an associate professor of English at Queens College CUNY, where he teaches the MFA in creative writing and literary translation. In 1991, with members of ACT UP New York, he interrupted Dan Rather’s CBS Evening News to protest government and media neglect of AIDS. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.