HIV Aids

Coming of Age in the Early Days of the HIV Pandemic Is ‘Like a Love Story’

There are helicopters overhead as I make my way up to Abdi Nazemian’s Hollywood Hills home for our interview. His latest novel, the 2019 book, Like a Love Story, is set in the ’80s, influenced by his own coming of age in New York City during the early AIDS epidemic. And I decided to speak to him about this book and growing up as an Iranian-American gay kid in those early days of the HIV pandemic. Nazemian is the author of two other novels, has worked as a screenwriter on many television shows, and is the co-producer of several films, including the 2017 documentary Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood.

This interview took place just shortly before the world shut down for COVID-19 and then blew up again after the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor. But Nazemian’s novel about growing up in the midst of another pandemic might be a preview for what young people growing up now may write about this moment.

Sherri Lewis: Abdi, I am so happy to finally meet to talk about your book!

Abdi Nazemian: Thank you.

SL: Congratulations. I really enjoyed it! It pops off the page like a script.

AN: Well, there is a script now. You know, that’s like a thing that authors always dream about when they write a book.

SL: But they don’t always read that way.

AN: I’d been a screenwriter for 10 years before I started writing novels. I think I very much approach things from that perspective.

SL: Reading it, I could easily see the scenes and the characters. Is this going to be a movie? Perhaps a series?

AN: The book was optioned before it came out. I wrote the script myself, and the hope is it will be a movie—but as you know from living in LA, working in this industry, for something to go from script to actual produced film you have to be very lucky and get all the elements in the film, getting stars attached, and someone to finance it and all that stuff. And it’s a difficult movie, because it requires a period, and it’s never cheap to create another era, but you have to do that. It requires a lot of music clearance, so that’s really expensive. It’s not an inexpensive film, but the producers are very much behind it. It’s obviously my passion project, so I’ll do anything for it. If it happens, it happens, and in the meantime I’m just happy that the book is reaching people and it’s out there.

SL: You said it’s your passion project. That you’ve been wanting to write this book since you were a kid.

AN: Yes, this is the story I’ve been talking about writing since I began writing. When I was a kid, I wasn’t a professional writer. But if you asked me when I was a teenager what impacted me, it was the AIDS epidemic. When I started therapy, that’s all I talked about. It was the single biggest influence on my life in a variety of ways, both good and painful. I talked about wanting to do a short film about a young boy. And I always wanted to write about the age I was.

SL: Which was?

AN: I was born in 1976, so when this book takes place I’m actually 13. I’m a little younger than the character.

SL: Wasn’t that your first Madonna concert?

AN: Oh no! I was 8 years old! The first official Madonna concert, the Virgin Tour!

SL: It’s pretty amazing that your parents brought you.

AN: Yes! They brought me to the Virgin Tour and the Blond Ambition Tour. Yeah, you know, my mom had a lot of trouble with my sexuality, as any Middle Eastern parents of their generation would. They did a pretty good job of allowing me to explore. They took me to these concerts. I mean, my mom bought me the Sex book!

SL: Wow! That book was shocking then!

AN: It made me very popular in high school. It was a real turning point. Everyone wanted to be around me. I had the book! [Abdi and I are carrying on, laughing and praising the book.] When that book and the Erotica album came out, just imagine the impact on a sophomore in high school who only knew to be ashamed of his sexuality to suddenly have the person he’s most obsessed about do this book and this album about celebrating sexuality. A lot of the songs on the Erotica album were inspired by the epidemic.

What’s interesting to me when I think back to that age, the feelings were fear and shame and all of those things that are really hard to look at and experience then. As I was writing the book, I realized there was so much celebration and community. So it’s funny, because the book became, to me, not as sad as I thought it would be. It’s hard going back. Writing young adult novels is interesting, because when you make them personal, you’re really looking at your own childhood. And looking at your own childhood can be very painful, because we spend our whole lives trying to heal our wounds.

And in a lot of ways, I think I’ve done that, but then when you’re writing about it you have to go back to all those emotions again so you can capture them. I guess what surprised me was how much connection and hope there was in the book, and the realization that as afraid as I was back then, I met the kind of friends and mentors that allowed me to accept myself and observe the kind of activists who were out there.

SL: You write about ACT UP as if you were in the protests, yet it was fiction for you and based on your research. How did you access that, having not experienced it?

AN: I did a tremendous amount of research for this book, and I remember my editor telling me, when I kind of pitched her the general idea, that I would have to do a deep dive. And I think, I hope that I did that well, because it was very important for me to get it right. I had a lot of people read it who were in ACT UP. I’ve been doing this research for a long time. I read TheBody. I go to those sites, and I’ve been doing it since I was a teenager. I was obsessed with the epidemic. The people who were lost. The epidemiology.

SL: You came out when the gay community was loud and extremely stigmatized due to the AIDS epidemic, even more than usual just for being gay. You were coming into your own sexuality during an epidemic when gay sex meant death. Not a happy introduction. And it was all over the news.

AN: I really do believe that the things that happen to us when we’re young program our brains. I’m not a therapist, but I had this one experience when I was young—I was at lunch with a friend of mine who was an older gay man, and it was right when there was a meningitis outbreak in West Hollywood and the gay community was encouraged to get vaccinated. And I remember the minute I saw that news story, I was at the clinic!

And all of my friends who were my age were getting vaccinated. I was sitting with this older gay friend of mine, and I asked him, “Oh my god, did you hear about this meningitis outbreak?” And he said, “Oh, please!” I said, “You haven’t gone to get your vaccine?” “No,” he replied. And then this other gay man came to say hello, and I asked him, “Have you gotten the vaccine?” And he said, “No.”

And I realized it was only the gay men of this specific generation that were in panic mode, because our brains were so programmed to think that we were going to die because of our sexuality. And I think that’s a lot of what the book is about. When we’re young, experiences hit us very hard, and it’s difficult to escape them, though I don’t think they’re inescapable—and that’s where the hope comes in, with friends and community.

SL: You end up on a very hopeful note. We learn from our past history, so it’s not all doomsday. You have to dig down deep to get to that place—but now we’ve learned, hopefully, so we don’t repeat, and now we have a new virus that’s very reminiscent and terrifying. [The new coronavirus was just making itself known at the time of this interview.]

AN: It’s terrifying. I’ve been reading some epidemiology. It’s very interesting to me, but just reading the stories about people who can’t leave their homes is horrific. it sounds like the government in China has been doing a very authoritarian and non-humanistic job of treating people with dignity, and I think that’s very hard, because sickness is very scary to people.

SL: Sickness and death. Let’s talk about your love chapter. I like your icons in the book, like Judy Garland.

AN: I spoke at a school, and one of the high-school girls was wearing a vintage Madonna T-shirt, and I thought that was so cool. So we got into a conversation about pop culture, and what really struck me is the importance that artists play in the way that we form our identities when we’re young. And I know some people want to roll their eyes at that, but to me, it’s huge. They make us feel seen and willing to take risks.

SL: We identify ourselves through them.

AN: You were a singer in the same era.

SL: Yes,1981, before Madonna. But you were coming from the truest place with your experience of Madonna as a fan, whereas I felt competitive about her.

AN: You know Tracey Thorn, the lead singer of Everything but the Girl?

SL: No.

AN: No? Anyway, she’s a big writer and singer in London, and she wrote a piece about Madonna for a British paper, and she talked about how back in the era, she felt competitive with and resentful toward her because Madonna’s voice was so loud it almost washed away everyone else’s. For me, art is activism. I did not go into this book thinking Madonna would play as big a role in the book as she does.

SL: She was the only one with an American flag wrapped around her and condoms. She was radical.

AN: Yes, radical. There were underground gay artists, but when you’re a teenage kid in the suburbs and your parents are relatively conservative, you’re not getting exposed to that art. So you really need the mainstream to bring it to you. A big debate about Madonna—was she using or appropriating gay culture? For me, she was embedded in it. Obviously, we’re in a different era now where we look at things differently. But kids like me would not have accepted ourselves as easily without her.

SL: She was exploring her own sexuality too.

AN: I read a great essay about her by this woman who wrote about the loss of Madonna’s mother and the role of death in her work. Losing her mom, her gay mentor, her friends like Keith Haring and then Gianni Versace. I think for the gay community of that era, she understood the loss and the power of self-expression in the fight. I think the things we cared about were very much expressed by her. What makes a young gay kid look at Madonna and see a kindred spirit? What do we recognize?

SL: Maybe parts of yourself.

AN: For gay people of my generation who didn’t come out as young as they do now, I think there’s something about being in the closet where you are always performing. You have the self for the world and the self that you are inside. When you see Madonna or Judy Garland, we’re zeroing in on that duality and recognizing an inner life that doesn’t match the outer one. So yeah, it was a big thrill in the book to get to talk about her. Teenagers have written to me saying that this was the first time they’ve ever listened to her, which makes me so happy. They just see her as this older pop star trying to stay relevant.

SL: So your title, Like a Love Story. How’d you come to the title?

AN: It came to me early on and never changed. Of course, this is 1989, Madonna’s Like a Prayer album changed my life. In the book, the characters are asking, why does Madonna name her things, “Like A …,” “Like a Virgin,” or Like a Prayer? One says, she’s exploring the illusion of something, of religion or sexuality. I always knew this book was a love story, but I wanted it to have that element of a question around it. What kind of love story? Romantic? Friendship? Love of community, art, activism? Adding that piece made it bigger when I talk about the book—it’s much less to me about romantic love than love for the communities we build. The real love story in the book is with the queer community and activists and artists. It’s my way of thanking the people who allow me to have the life I have today.

SL: Yes, now you’re married with children. None of that existed then. It was Stonewall, followed by a lot of disco, sex, drugs, and love—followed by AIDS.

AN: Yes, even when I started as a screenwriter, people said, “Don’t write queer or Iranian stories.” Now I have the freedom to. And in the queer and gay communities, there’s not enough gratitude for the people who fought for us. And I think it’s rooted in the desire to move forward, which is great, but as we look forward, we also have to sometimes look back and express our gratitude.

SL: You have to take history with you. You’re Iranian. I have a Jewish background that I knew nothing about. I was culturally Jewish. I was embarrassed by the stereotypes, “Oh, she shops at Bloomingdale’s.” I had no education about what it really means to be a Jew. I had to go on my own journey to discover what being a Jew really means. I studied and even went to Israel. Now I’m proud of who I am and where I come from, and it has nothing to do with Bloomingdale’s!

AN: Iranian people are very stiff-upper-lip when it comes to trauma, so when I was young I was very much raised culturally Iranian in terms of music, food, and celebrations. But the history was very hidden. They did not like talking about the revolution. I had no gay Iranian friends until I was an adult. We were invisible. Madonna’s Blond Ambition tour was the first time in my life that I saw queer men of color. The director of Strike a Pose [the documentary about Madonna’s late ’80s/early ’90s dancers] sent a copy of my novel to all the dancers.

SL: You talk a lot in the book about the role of Elizabeth Taylor’s activism. From the book: “I hope people remember that without her there would be less glamor in the world and also less goodness and less courage.”

AN: I looked to the old Hollywood stars for a sense of escapism, and to inject glamor and fantasy into my own life. Then for me to discover that one of the people I’d been so enamored of as a movie star was out there fighting for us was very moving. She had access to power, and it’s interesting to me when people have access to that, how they choose to use it.

SL: She embraced Rock Hudson, whereas Nancy Reagan dismissed him. Here’s another quote from your book: “Always be a first-rate version of yourself instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.”

AN: I love that—it’s a Judy Garland quote. I picked quotes from James Baldwin, Judy Garland, and Madonna that spoke to the various sections of the book. The book is told in three chunks of time going into 1990, basically one school year. And I based each of those chunks around an ACT UP action.

SL: In those visits with [the older gay character] Stephen, who unfortunately dies of AIDS in the book, how did you come to experience that? With your imagination—or did you experience something close enough to inform you of that very real scene you wrote?

AN: I didn’t experience the ACT UP protests, of course. I was too young and too closeted, and I didn’t experience losing someone to AIDS at the height of the epidemic. But I’ve certainly experienced loss, and loss is loss. And the rest is informed by a lifetime of feeling like when I wasn’t experiencing those things directly, I was already reading every book, every article. I saw the AIDS quilt when it came to New York. I was always engaged with those stories.

This is going to seem silly, but I used to teach screenwriting, and the first thing I would always assign is a book called, The Inner Game of Tennis. It’s a psychology book about how you have to practice tennis so much that when you finally get on the court for a real match, it’s all instinct. It applies, to me, very much to writing. You have to understand a sense of structure, pace, dialogue, so that when you write your own, you go on instinct. With this story, I did so much research in advance. I re-immersed myself in everything I thought would be relevant to get myself in the head of that community and the loss, so that when I wrote, it felt organic and I didn’t have to overthink it. So it feels real because I just allowed it to exist. With this, I felt it coming out of me—

SL: On a cellular level.

AN: Yes, when you’re just a vessel for the voices to come through.

SL: What films did you watch for research? How to Survive a Plague?

AN: I’d already seen it, but I watched it again and read the book by the same name. I reread And the Band Played On. I watched Longtime Companion and Parting Glances. There was a very long scene in the book, that got cut, in which all the characters are debating Longtime Companion. A scene where they’re discussing whether you call it a gay film or not. I think that scene very much came out of when I was an associate producer on Call Me by Your Name, and when it came out, many people said, “Let’s not call this a gay film, because other people won’t see it.”

Well, I want people to call my book a gay book. To say something shouldn’t be called a gay work is to imply there’s something wrong with that. I’m aware because of the shame put on me growing up that that kind of re-shaming is very easy. A small thing can be said, and suddenly I’m aware of being a little kid again. It’s very dangerous. I’ve always wanted this book to be considered as gay as fuck. You know what I mean? I want to be able to tell young people, “Let’s claim our identities.”

Anyone who reads this book can tell I’m still a little kid, a fan of Hollywood. I love the fashion, the stars. It’s so fantastic. When I was in high school, in boarding school, a teacher who was openly gay showed a group of us some gay films. Paris is Burning, The Times of Harvey Milk, and Maurice.

SL: Then came Philadelphia. I was in Cambridge, Mass., at the time working at Harvard and we had a screening. I sobbed through that movie. For friends who died, for scenes I experienced. It showed how people died and the goodbye parties for them. They cast actual AIDS patients in Philadelphia, actors for whom it was their last film.

AN: At the time I was so deeply moved by it. But around the time that Dallas Buyers Club came out, it really struck me that the two biggest films ever made about AIDS both have heterosexual male lead actors.

SL: You think they should’ve found gay actors?

AN: Not necessarily, but it made me feel that the Hollywood powers-that-be felt like the lead actors couldn’t be gay.

SL: Yeah, you could look at it that way, but I think they used mainstream star power to push the story.

AN: Yeah … for me, it’s the heterosexuality of it all. I was on a panel recently with queer authors of different genders. Someone said, “Aren’t we past having to have sad gay stories where the protagonist dies?” I get so upset, because for me, it’s like, well, sure, we should have all kinds of gay stories, including happy stories. But we haven’t even started touching on all the lives of queer people who have died. My first boyfriend died of a drug overdose. Just recently, a friend of mine committed suicide. A close friend from high school who was gay just took his own life. So for queer people to hear, “Aren’t we past telling sad gay stories?” No, I don’t think we are.

SL: No, you can’t get over a gay Holocaust. So many babies died!

AN: Yes, babies died. Just recently I was at a dinner with an older white gay man who was very much implying that homophobia was over. And I said, “I’m Iranian. You’re ignoring that there are so many communities of color. You live in your HRC [Human Rights Campaign] world and you got gay marriage and now you’re done.” But when you look at communities of color in the South, AIDS is still raging and pharma companies are still doing shady shit.

SL: $3,000 a month for one pill.

AN: Which, by the way, should be generic. So the ideas that these issues are past us is ignoring anyone who is not of means and a certain color. We’re sending a message to certain people who are invisible. We can’t be sending that message to young people anymore.

SL: You have a gorgeous life.

AN: Yes, I really do. I know. I’m a newlywed and I have the best kids, Evie and Rumi.

SL: You write at the end of the book, “Evie and Rumi, as I write this, your most requested Madonna songs are ‘Open Your Heart’ and ‘Crazy for You,’ which is perfect because you have opened my heart in so many ways and I couldn’t be crazier for you. You teach me every day how to be more patient, loving and creative. I can’t wait for you to read this book so I can tell you all about a time where there were no cell phones or Internet, when I was a starry-eyed kid who dreamed big and could never have dreamed one day of having the privilege of raising the two greatest children in the world. Never forget that if I hold the lock, you hold the key.”

AN: And I mean every word of that. They’re the best. This book has been in me a long time. Why’d it take me so long? Because the book is so vulnerable, which is something I was taught not to be. It took the heart-opening that came with Jonathan and the kids. And a lack of fear. Because to be this vulnerable on the page, you can’t be afraid, and for a lot of my life I was afraid. I had a lot of walls up. Many gay men of my generation did not aspire to have families, but I always wanted kids, even when I was very young. I just never thought it would happen for me. Now I get to live in a world where I get to be a parent in a very open bubble of a city where we’re treated like any other family and celebrated. My parents are the greatest grandparents, and it’s allowed them to look at my life with less fear and more love. When the kids were born, I was doing TV shows and films that didn’t reflect who I was. They were jobs. I wanted to be more deliberate with my choices.

SL: Thank you, Abdi. That was fun.

AN: You’re welcome. You’re a really good interviewer.

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