Legendary writer and HIV-activist Larry Kramer was recently interviewed by his friend, actress Ellen Barkin in the latest edition of Interview Magazine.
An excerpt: “Nobody lives,” we’re told toward the conclusion of The American People, Volume 2: The Brutality of Fact. “In the end that is the short and simple. Nobody lives. Talbott is sick. Norman is sick. Cal is sick. Hobart is sick. Mark B. is sick. Randolph is sick. Manolo is sick. Frank is sick. Robert G. is sick. Ted is sick. Myron is sick. Alfred is sick. There are more, overwhelmingly more. I can’t recall all their names. My memory is sick.” No writer has been able to chronicle the horrible, maddening, delirious depths of the AIDS epidemic in America like the 84-year-old activist, writer, and gay icon Larry Kramer. For him, it is not his memory that is sick, but the country itself—particularly its conscience. The longtime New Yorker has spent most of his life standing up, shouting from the top of his lungs, blocking doors, and naming names for the purpose of saving lives. After clocking time as a burgeoning Hollywood screenwriter in the late 1960s and early ’70s, Kramer returned to Manhattan, and so began one of the most radical, trailblazing careers in American letters. In 1978, he wrote the controversial gay-life novel Faggots, incendiary for its frankness even among its own community. When AIDS began to devastate that very community in the early 1980s, largely due to the cruel indifference of the culture at large, Kramer penned a play, his third, that soared and raged and howled about the suffering and losses of this new disease while the politicians looked away and the medical experts wringed their hands. The Normal Heart is a bellwether work in its power of art and provocation. By the time it came out, Kramer had already co-founded Gay Men’s Health Crisis and, in 1987, he took his anger and defiance to the streets with the formation of ACT UP. The heroism of that movement, with its strategies for civil disobedience, has not been matched to this day.
When Kramer finds an enemy, good luck to that person. His battles have been legendary, his willingness to engage profound. And he’s not done yet. This January, Kramer is publishing The Brutality of Fact, the second volume of his novelistic meta-work The American People, in which the author has taken it upon himself to amend American history from its delusional straight domain with the willful insertion of high-spirited gayness. The first volume, published in 2015, finds the founding father (and, according to Kramer, the homosexual war hero) George Washington gracing its cover. This one bears the face of Kramer himself. It picks up the plot in “postwar America,” although, we quickly realize, we have never been without war. One still rages on.
The actor Ellen Barkin first met Kramer in 1995 when they both appeared on a talk show. Barkin went on to star in the 2011 Broadway revival of The Normal Heart, for which she won a Tony Award, and the two have been good friends ever since. Late last October, Barkin stopped by Kramer’s apartment off Washington Square Park to talk to the famously angry activist about fights both old and new. —CHRISTOPHER BOLLEN
BARKIN: You were a shy boy. How did you have the strength to fight your bully of a dad?
KRAMER: That’s a very good question. He called me a sissy and it made me mad. I don’t know where anger comes from, but I find it a very positive emotion.
BARKIN: As do I.
KRAMER: People pay more attention to you. That’s the lesson I learned early on with Gay Men’s Health Crisis—you get paid more attention if you’re loud and obnoxious. Otherwise, you’re just another person. I slowly started getting more and more angry and came to be known as the angriest gay man in the world.
BARKIN: But you were angry before. You were angry when you wrote Faggots. You were angry when you wrote The Normal Heart. I identify with that anger. I didn’t have to reach deeply for my character’s righteous indignation and sense of injustice. It’s in everything you write and every move you make. So what now, Larry? Look where we are now.
KRAMER: There are different opinions about where we are in terms of AIDS. It’s still awful, in terms of the gay world. So I’ve written another play to go with the last Ned Weeks play [The Normal Heart], in which Ned feels that he’s failed.