Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix A Conversation With Allan Gurganus

NOVEMBER 10, 1997: 

Q: "Plays Well with Others" contains a lot of debauchery, or at least decadence: sex, drugs, lives devoted to art. But there's an extraordinary innocence to Hartley's account of it all.

A: The people who interest me the most are the believers. Hartley thinks of himself as corrupted by the city, but I think the reader begins to understand that his innocence is incorruptible. I mean, he goes to the Saint Mark's baths, and he avoids the angel of death [a predatory flight attendant] and winds up with a nice commodity gold dealer named Dean in a hot tub on the roof. It's really like sending someone into Dante's inferno and having them come back engaged. Hartley has a Protestant emergency break that pulls him back and that distances him from the people he idolizes. I think that makes him the best narrator for the novel, as if he were the smoked glass that lets you get right up against the sun and come back with the tale of it.

Q: You worked on "Confederate Widow" for seven years. Did you find it as difficult to finish your second novel?

A: I wrote "Plays Well" much faster than anything of comparable length I've done. I realized I had been waiting to write it for a decade and a half. The occasion [that triggered the novel] was that my parents both died within eight months of each other. Immediately after my mother's funeral, I suddenly realized that I could sleep without waiting for the lethal phone call. Everyone I had been taking care of who was in a mortal state was dead. I was in some way free. But of course what I was free to do was to remember them, and to try to honor them in some way. In the past 15 years I've done probably 40 eulogies at the funerals of friends. The eulogy has become my art form. In writing the book I tried to utilize these lessons that I hadn't really wanted to learn in the first place.

Q: Hartley and Angie spend a lot of time agonizing over which of them will get to sleep with Robert first. And yet one of the most intriguing moments in the novel is when Hartley realizes that Angie, not Robert, is his great love. The book is in some way the story of this chaste but intense love affair between a gay man and a straight woman. It's not a topic a lot of people have written about in such a sympathetic, untragic way.

A: It's one of the great subjects. I think that as people write more candidly about sexuality, there will probably be courses in colleges on precisely this subject. Whenever I refer to the gay community, specifically in relation to the pandemic, I really mean gay people and those straight people who stood by them. And a large percentage of those folks were straight women who were best friends, who shared common interests (like sexy men . . . and sometimes shared those sexy men), women who shared an artistic and spiritual ambition, and who would just literally give you anything they owned. That was our pact, that we cared insanely much about our work and about each other. One of the things the novel is about is the essential status of friendship in a life. I think romantic love still gets much too much attention in fiction and in life. I think what most people mostly get by on is friendship.

Q: In a story in "White People," a housewife sees a naked angel crash onto her front lawn. In "Plays Well," Robert appears in a pivotal scene wearing strap-on wings, and the book ends in an imaginary orientation session in heaven for newly created angels. Can you talk about your interest in the angelic?

A: I feel like I beat the world to the punch in terms of this. One of the names I was going to use for an earlier book of novellas was "Angels Are Among Us," and suddenly that was the name of a Reba McEntire song. I thought, holy shit, I've got the zeitgeist, I'm just late.

I'm just erotically attached to the vision of a person with wings. In childhood one of my earliest drawings was of a person who was built like a bird, and ornithology interests me greatly. Also, I think that talking about angels is a way of detaching the spiritual component from ourselves and talking about our appetite for it. I think there's this tremendous longing for company in the universe. Traditionally the last decade of the century becomes a mystical moment; this longing for spiritual company resurfaces. And if anything I think we're more hungry than earlier people have been. The whole response to Princess Diana's death is an example of our incredible emotional ambition and our emotional impoverishment. If there was a war going on right now that was significant to Americans, think of how little press her death would have gotten. We have this nostalgia for carnage and this appetite for the big test. The incredible thing about the HIV outbreak was that it gave us a test, one that we hadn't sought.

-- David Kurnick


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