David France’s Diary: Celebrating the good that came from Aids

The author of How to Survive a Plague, winner of the Baillie Gifford prize, on an emotional week.

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I awake with burning eyes – my body, still on New York time, thinks it’s 2am while the view from the St Pancras Renaissance hotel confirms it’s daybreak in London – and check the internet for signs of life. After winning the Baillie Gifford Prize last night, for my book about Aids activism, I have too many notes of congratulations to count. Here is one from my ex. Various producers and executive producers. At least one person from my teen years in the American Midwest. The retired chairwoman of my university’s English department. Colleagues from my newspaper days, my magazine days, my film-making days.

The night before had been a dream. I can recall Peter Bazalgette calling out the name of my book. And then my ears filled with the reverberating silence that accompanies a great shock. I know that my editor Ravi Mirchandani said something to me – I saw his mouth move – and that the room whooped and applauded. I heard nothing. And now I can’t recall a word I said except that I delivered it through sobs. I know that I neglected to thank anybody, shamefully, for this is a book lifted up by so many: my editors, my readers, my researcher and my sources – the heroic people whose stories I told.

Dearly departed

I remember wishing that I could call my mother with the news. She was always the reader I imagined as I wrote – I fashioned my work to her curious, impatient, joy-searching ear. This book was my first since her death in 2012. For two years after that I had found it impossible to craft a readable sentence. It took me that long to learn that I could still write for her – that writing itself kept her alive in my heart. Maybe that’s a lesson of my book about loss and survival, that memory glues the dead to the living.

I know that, as I dressed for the evening’s ceremony yesterday, thoughts of my mother filled my mind happily. Tomorrow will be devoted to the memory of my lover Doug Gould, who fought the Aids epidemic with me, on the 25th anniversary of his death. And today? I must begin by racing off to the BBC and a memorable conversation with Sarah Montague on the Radio 4 Today programme. The rest of the day goes like that, me on the wrong side of the interviewer’s mic.

Homeward bound

I do wonder what Doug would make of this whirlwind. Yesterday, Julian Worricker from BBC World Service had asked me how it felt to be celebrated, and I answered honestly that you don’t live through a mass death experience and hope for anything but survival. I survived. I wish Doug had also. He died at 33 years old, never having made it to middle age. My old friend Ian Horst, who called from Brooklyn to giggle about how insomnia had caused him to turn on the BBC and hear my voice, said he tried to imagine Doug as he approached 60. “How strange he never saw the humiliation of age,” he said. But I tell him my mind always goes the other way, that he will always be dark-haired and youthfully handsome, and that we, nearing 60, are the aberrations. This is a consequence of surviving the plague.

On a plane back to New York City, I let tears slide down my cheeks quietly. Arriving home – to the apartment that Doug and I shared – after a long absence, I experience an inexplicable but pressing need to rearrange furniture in the living room before sitting cross-legged at a shrine I keep for Doug. Assembled inside an old reliquary I picked up in Mexico City are his ashes, the bulky eyeglasses that had defined his face, photos he had loved, charms reflecting his pieced-together spirituality – an Infant of Prague medallion, a West African talisman, a doll from a Native American reservation we had visited with his adoptive parents and with which he, a descendant of the Cherokee tribe, identified uncomfortably.

My sweetheart arrives and I marvel, not for the first time, at how much Mark looks like Doug, with his dark, dancing eyes and dimpled, sun-coloured cheeks. When I’m with Mark I can forget the plague almost entirely. Everything, that is, but Doug.

Dual identity

It’s Sunday and I am lucky now to be on London time because my flight leaves at 6am and I have no trouble making it. I’m in the air again, heading to San Francisco for a screening of my new documentary, The Death and Life of Marsha P Johnson. I’m a relatively new film-maker. My first documentary, released in 2012, has the same title as my book. I started it in 2009 after trying – and failing – to find an American publisher for the book. I didn’t return to the manuscript until after the film came out in 2012 and showed viewers (and readers) that there was more to the history of Aids than had been published. In fact, I argued, a lot of good came from Aids and deserved to be celebrated. Jonathan Segal, my editor at Alfred A. Knopf, pushed my hand over every page, through multiple drafts, past repeated extensions. Each paragraph contains his vision. He is, as I have told him more than once, the editor I have waited my whole career to find. I never would have survived How to Survive a Plague, and How to Survive a Plague would be less than half the book it became, without him. 

Ever since then I have juggled my bifurcated identity as author and film-maker – seldom have the requirements of each world so closely overlapped in time as they did this busy weekend. To help ease the transition, I binge-watch every episode of The Handmaid’s Tale and Big Little Lies, available on the little monitor that slides out of my armrest, and the flight goes by in a flash.

After the storm

A car rockets me from the airport in time to introduce the film, and several coffees propel me to the party afterwards, attended by luminaries from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, numerous Oscar winners, and leading figures from the overlapping worlds of LGBTQ nightlife and cinema. A number of them had read of my recent UK adventure, offering congratulations, but this is not the room for celebrating the Baillie Gifford.

That moment awaits me when I return to New York on the next flight out. My phone is full of enough congratulatory invitations to last me past the holidays. Hopefully there will be time to rest, in the felt presence of those who are no longer here. As much as I hate to admit it, I’m just not that young any more. 

“How to Survive a Plague: The Story of How Activists and Scientists Tamed Aids” by David France is published by Picador

This article appears in the 22 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Europe: the new disorder