STORIES from Artists: Tim Murphy

With every newsletter, FAM will shine a light on an artist who is grappling with HIV/AIDS in their work. We’ll be asking the same questions, and getting very different answers. For the first interview in our STORIES From Artists series, we’re featuring the author and journalist Tim Murphy.

Among other achievements, Murphy is the author of the novel Christodora, which profoundly moved us. Published by Grove Press in 2016 and longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal, Christodora tells the story of a diverse cast of characters – including an AIDS activist – whose lives collide in an iconic building in Manhattan. Murphy has also reported on HIV/AIDS for 20 years for such publications as POZ Magazine, where he was an editor and staff writer.

– Abdi Nazemian
Board Member, Foundation for the AIDS Monument

– When is the first time you heard about HIV/AIDS?

My first AIDS memory is browsing the magazines in the CVS in my hometown in Massachusetts and seeing a story that I think was in Newsweek or Time — this was probably 1982 or 1983, so I would’ve been 12 or 13 — about AIDS, and the story had a picture of an AIDS awareness or safe sex poster hanging in a gay bathhouse, which was a double peek for me: of not just AIDS, but of gay life and gay sexual spaces.

And then my next memory is of Rock Hudson on the cover of People magazine in October 1985 after he died. I remember going to the adjacent small city on the regional transit bus to buy black oxford shoes at the Army-Navy store and seeing the magazine cover on the way there. But this was a long way away from when I would actually acknowledge that I was gay myself and come out, which was not until the early 90s, at the end of college.

– Why did you choose to grapple with HIV/AIDS in your work?

I have written about AIDS in NYC since about 1994, when I became a volunteer writer for GMHC’s various magazines, back when they probably had 1,000 volunteers at any given time.  And after writing about HIV treatment for about 7 years, I became HIV+ myself in 2000, in a very messy period of depression and drugs.

So, HIV/AIDS has been part of my personal, social and professional story my entire adult life in NYC, and eventually it all found its way into Christodora. At that time, there were basically no fictional narratives that took on the whole arc of AIDS in NYC, from 1981 until well into the cocktail era, and I wanted to try to do that, but jumping back and forth in time.

– In what ways have the arts adequately — or inadequately — honored the legacy of those we lost and those who fought?

AIDS as depicted in film, TV and lit has usually been the stories of gay white men, even as recently as “It’s a Sin” on HBO, and we have not really had good storytelling depicting AIDS in Black communities, among drug users, and among women.

Maybe someone will option Sarah Schulman’s forthcoming “Let the Record Show,” which is the first forthcoming history of ACT UP-NY from all those perspectives, not just gay white male ones. The story of the activism that was done in those realms, such as legalizing needle exchange in NYC or making the federal government broaden the definition of AIDS to include women’s symptoms, is really fascinating — great stories we haven’t heard before. I hope we see more of them well depicted in TV and film especially. TV in recent years really has become an incredible medium for telling these never-before-told stories.

– What scared you most about telling this story?

I think being so graphic about sex and out-of-control drug use, which was definitely part of my story. I thought people would recoil from those aspects, but in fact they seem to have had a car-accident, can’t-look-away quality for most readers. I was also scared about telling AIDS stories not from my “native” community middle-class gay mostly (but far from all) white men, such as women’s stories. I approached that part with a lot of thoughtfulness and extreme respect around historical and medical accuracy.

– What is your favorite work of art that deals with HIV/AIDS?

I love a short story by a writer who died of AIDS in the 90s named Allen Barnett, called “The Times As it Knows Us,” in a collection called The Body and Its Dangers and Other Stories. It’s an incredibly beautiful piece of writing that was hugely influential for me when I read it in my 20s in the ’90s. I also think that the TV show Pose deals with AIDS really beautifully, as did the TV show The Deuce. And I love Janet Jackson’s “Together Again,” which is her valentine song to her friends who died of AIDS.

–  What do you think the role of art is during a public health crisis?

I think art, seeing the stories we are living, or have lived, helps us process things emotionally that we otherwise might not be able to process, because it reflects them back to us in a way that’s concentrated and distilled, versus the slow drip of real life, which can just be slowly traumatic.

– If you could help shine a light on one life we lost to HIV/AIDS, who would it be?

The designer Willi Smith, who died of AIDS in 1987. I wore WilliWear in high school, so I have a sentimental attachment, but whenever I look at old pictures of him and his models in his clothes in NYC in the 1980s, I just feel happy and thrilled and wish I could watch the story of his short life in a limited series or something.

I feel the same way about the fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez, who also died of AIDS in 1987. Maybe a dual bio of both of them? I imagine they crossed paths, working in the same city in the same field at the exact same time.