Q&A with Tom Spanbauer
The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon (1991) is one of those cult books you hear about again and again until you finally read it for yourself, fall in love with it and become one of the legions bugging everyone they know to read it. Fans of that book had to wait 10 long years for Tom Spanbauer's latest release, In the City of Shy Hunters (Grove Press, 560 pages, $26). A novel of New York City during the AIDS outbreak of the 1980s, it's alternately heartbreaking, humorous, revelatory and inspiring. It's a rare book that captures a time in history and makes it a very moving present.
The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon came out in 1991. After that book did you plan to write another one?
Well, actually I had started In the City of Shy Hunters before Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon and I got so, I was so enraged, it was so political, it just, it got so polemical I just quit writing and left it and started The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon. Then I went back to In the City of Shy Hunters in, it was like 1992, something like that. So I've been writing it for, oh gosh, nine years at least.
Did you ever think it would take so long?
No I didn't. Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon took four and a half years. I thought it would be like Moon. I knew it was something big, but I didn't know it was as big as it is. And of course I got sick right in the middle of it?
Can you explain what you mean by sick?
Yeah, I got AIDS. In 1996, December 1st, I went into the hospital and it took me seven months to get back on my feet again.
Did you know that you had AIDS before that, like were you HIV-positive?
Yeah, I knew I was HIV-positive. I was living in a world of denial pretty much.
Were you taking care of yourself?
Well yeah, I was taking some Oriental pills and doing some yoga. I thought I was taking care of myself, but now that I look back on it, I'm taking care of myself now, I wasn't taking care of myself then. I was still drinking a pot of coffee in the morning and wasn't really eating like I should, and I got pretty damn sick. I remember the morning that I went out?I had a little writing shed and I went out one morning and turned the computer on and got into the file and wrote one sentence, I think it was the beginning of chapter 29 and it's, "I dialed 911 for Rose." And that's the only sentence I could write. I had to go back inside. So it's been a long, long, tough road.
Were you ever afraid that you wouldn't finish it?
Yes, absolutely. It's not necessarily about AIDS, it's kinda like, you know, um, Cezanne's bowl of fruit is about a bowl of fruit, you know? It's during the time when AIDS hits New York City really hard between '83 and '88, and it's just about these people who live and love and fight and fuck and all this and then?boom?all of a sudden this hits. The big topic was AIDS, and here I had it, you know? There were a couple of places characters had to die. I felt in a way that I was a survivor of this epidemic and I owed it to a lot of people to tell the story of what it was like, and so I did that.
The effect of AIDS has changed because of all the new drugs. How did that affect you while you were writing?
Those drugs kept me alive.
But the people's stories?
The book ends in 1988. So they didn't have the benefit of any of the drugs.
So it's kind of ironic that the drugs kept you alive so you could write it, but your characters?
Yeah, a couple of them, well, it's almost a Greek tragedy, you know?
I think a lot of people forget what it was like. I know a lot of people my age who really just think that getting AIDS is sort of like getting hepatitis. Especially with the ads where it shows people climbing mountains?you pop a few pills and then you're okay.
Yeah, well, that's certainly not the case with me. I had 17 T-cells and I just about died and I'm still dealing with?it's almost another incarnation, my life is totally different. Of course, I'm aging as well, but I just don't have the energy I used to have. And the depression that's come along with it, that's really knocking me out too. When the book was finished, now what on earth do I do? I kept telling myself, well, you can just finish the book, Tom, and you can die. And then I finished the book and I wasn't dead. And a year later I'm still alive, and I don't know what to do with myself, really. I don't have the energy to start another book yet.
I think we would be better off if we were rock stars.
I would rather be a rock star. Really, I'd love to get up in front of a bunch of people and grab that microphone and sing my heart out. I would love to do that.
Well, maybe we should start a band, like Stephen King and Amy Tan.
Right. What do we call ourselves?
They call them the Rock Bottom Remainders or something. I guess we can call ourselves the Sock Drawer Remainders.
[Laughing] The Old Jockstraps or something like that.
I'll put on a dress and sing. You can put on a dress and sing.
Okay, sure, I like to put on dresses.
So have you started thinking about another book?
Actually I have. I've got a couple pages into it and it'll be quite different and I think this huge tome and creation of an entire new language and universe and, you know, intense work on characterization... I may have burned that muscle out altogether. But I walk around with all these thoughts, and there are a lot of really interesting things that have happened to me. Like my time in Africa and how I ran into a zebra one night and almost got bit by a green mamba?
What's a green mamba?
It's a snake. You can live for half a minute when it bites you.
How did you almost get bit by one?
I went to this place to set up my tent. The place is called Kiboko, which means hippopotamus. There was a local shower, so I put my towel around me and walked to the local shower and took a shower and put my towel back on, walked back. I'd left my tent open, and a green mamba had crawled in and wrapped itself around my duffel bag.
Oh my God.
And when I reached for my shorts there's this snake. It struck and it missed me, and I went screaming out?this naked man went screaming out of his tent, and then the whole village came over and helped me. And the snake finally realized the only way out was where we were and it just came shooting at us, and we all beat the shit out of each other trying to get out of the way of the snake.
How did The Man Who Fell in Love do when it came out? How was it received?
It got good reviews. It sold moderately, but the thing about that book is that it's 10 years later and it's still selling moderately. It's still on the shelf and people still are buying it, and that's the remarkable thing.
Anyone I turn on to the book feels like they've discovered this incredible gem. I think Sarah owes a lot of inspiration to The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon.
It's interesting what you think of Shy Hunters, because the character is also an innocent. But unlike Shed [from The Man], who really didn't have lots of internal psychology that was on the page, this narrator is quite neurotic. Probably a third of the book is about his past and how he became so broken. He stutters, he's impotent and he is just full of grief. Essentially the story is he has moved to New York City to find his childhood comrade and lover, who he knows has moved to New York. The narrator has betrayed him, but you don't know what he's done really. So the narrator has moved to New York to try and find his old buddy, his old lover, Charlie Two Moons, Native American guy, and that's the story. He just goes to New York to find this guy and he just plans to do it. He has a couple of leads, he knows that he got a poetry scholarship at Columbia University and so he moves there, he just goes there to ask forgiveness of his old friend, and he eventually does find his friend or his friend finds him, but not like you'd think it's gonna be and so it's a surprise. Shed is an innocent and can remain an innocent throughout the story, but as soon as my innocent in Shy Hunters goes to New York City, he's got to learn real fast to cover his ass. And so it's an ambivalent story about how he maintains his innocence but still gets that New York fuck-you down so he can live, you know?
Shy Hunters, even with all the death in it, is really a story of redemption, of hope.
There is hope in it. I really had to work hard to find the hope, and I did, I found it. I wouldn't want the book relegated to an AIDS novel. Because it's about these wonderful people who make a family, there's a lot of humanity and a lot of hope in it. I guess that's what I want to say.
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