Last month, the British Library hosted a conversation between the journalist and filmmaker David France and writer Garth Greenwell on the occasion of the publication, last November, of France’s book How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS. In 2013, France wrote, directed, and produced the Oscar-nominated documentary film How to Survive a Plague, about the early years of the AIDS epidemic and the activist organizations ACT UP and Treatment Action Group. The book expands that narrative, interweaving the stories of individuals to trace the scientific history of AIDS and the birth of AIDS and LGBT activism, and to show the profound and underrecognized effect of the gay community’s struggle on American society and culture. “Their resistance and cunning,” Carl Bernstein wrote, “will remain as seminal to medical history and humanity as the efforts of Pasteur and Salk.” The exchange below is an edited version of France and Greenwell’s discussion, with thanks to the British Library. —Nicole Rudick
It seems to me that we’re in a moment, and have been in a moment for a few years, of a revisitation of the height of the AIDS crisis in America. The extraordinary amount of recent cultural production around that crisis would include memoirs by Sean Strub, Dale Peck, Alysia Abbott, Bernard Cooper, Cleve Jones, whose memoir of AIDS activism was made into a miniseries, your own documentary, which we’ll talk about, and also Jim Hubbard’s documentary United in Anger, a film production of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, new biographies of the artist David Wojnarowicz, the activist and singer Michael Callen, and the poet Essex Hemphill, a resurgence of interest in the extraordinary African American composer Julius Eastman, major novels by Tim Murphy, Larry Kramer, Rabih Alameddine—all in the last few years. This follows a period in which interest in AIDS seemed to have waned, and you’ve said that in 2008 and 2009, when you were carrying around a proposal for this book, no one was interested. What do you think is behind the sudden interest in this period?
There was a belief that the story of AIDS had been told, that it had been captured in the canon of the time—another long list—and that we had gathered and collected and transmitted those stories for the generations. The argument I was making in 2008 and 2009 was that all of that work had been produced inside the plague, and the reporting was very early, the thinking was very early. The arguments and conclusions represented the thinking in the middle, when no one knew what was going to happen. It was all very powerful, like Paul Monette’s work—devastating, so much of it. But by 1996, when the new drug class came to market and made it possible to survive an HIV infection—meaning we’d reached the end of the plague as we knew it, the untreatable, almost-certain-death period—we were all sent into some sort of dizzying future we hadn’t imagined and couldn’t celebrate it. There was no way to have a party, because of what had happened. So to look at that period—no one had done it. Read More