K.M. Soehnlein Looks Back at ACT-UP in New Novel

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday March 7, 2023

K.M. Soehnlein
K.M. Soehnlein  

It's been some time since K. M. Soehnlein's last novel. After a string of well-received titles — the award-winning "The World of Normal Boys" in 2000, "You Can Say You Knew Me When" in 2005, and a follow-up to "The World of Normal Boys" titled "Robin and Ruby" in 2010 — Soehnlein began teaching and kept writing, but no new book hit the stores.

The wait is over with the recent publication of "Army of Lovers," Soehnlein's fictionalized account of his days in ACT UP and as a founding member of Queer Nation. As with his previous novels, "Army of Lovers" blends rich characterizations and frank sexuality, plus a political awareness that serves to remind the reader that today's intense homophobia from politicians and other elites is nothing new. The novel transports older readers back, in vivid fashion, to the 1980s. Younger readers will find the novel the next best thing to first-hand experience of those days. From protests, to complicated love lives, to the devastating losses of the AIDS crisis, "Army of Lovers" recalls a time that we thought we'd left behind, and illustrates the continuing need for visibility, advocacy, and activism.

EDGE caught up with Soehnlein to hear what he's been up to over the last dozen years, his process for writing the new book, and where he'd like to go from here.

EDGE: Was "Army of Lovers" especially hard to write?

K.M. Soehnlein:: After "Robin and Ruby" I had a version of this novel, and I had an agent who was shopping it around. She couldn't find a home for it. She sent it back to me and said, "You're on your own."

I started another novel. Then, as often happens when you really let go of something, somehow it reemerges in a different space. What happened in this case was Michael Nava, who started the Amble Press imprint of Bywater Books, which is a small women-run press out of Ann Arbor, Michigan. They brought Michael Nava in to expand their offerings with a specifically LGBTQ imprint. Michael said, "Send me what you have, because I have this new press." As soon as I sent him the first 50 pages of "Army of Lovers," he said, "I want to publish it." And so, suddenly, in 2020 I had an offer, and that got us here today.

EDGE: Did the passage of more time allow you to see more clearly what it was you wanted to do with the book?

K.M. Soehnlein:: One of the things I finally did was give myself permission to make it a novel, completely. The character's name for a long time was Karl, my name, and when I finally rewrote it, he became Paul — and at that point, I felt this sort of burden lift off my shoulders. It was like, "Okay, good. Now I can stop trying to write down everything that happened, and allow certain fictional elements of the book to emerge more strongly."

I started retyping the manuscript from page one in present tense. What that did was immediately pressurize every moment. Even though there's this narrator looking back, when he looks back, he's in the present tense and he pulls the reader into the past in that voice.

There is still some of that fiction versus nonfiction tension in the book. The basic structure of the story of Paul's journey [was my journey]: He's 21 years old, shows up in New York City, gets involved with ACT UP because he heard Larry Kramer speaking and got motivated to join. He has a boyfriend; they become deeply involved in all aspects of this group.

EDGE: This book is intense. There were times I had to put it down and take a walk. Did you find that writing it was an especially emotional process?

K.M. Soehnlein:: Yes. I think that's another reason that it took so long to write and to get right — because it was about a very, very difficult time. But that emotional content absolutely comes back in terms of how that feels to a reader. I'm really interested in that, now that it's done. What is this experience like? Is it too heavy? Is it triggering for someone who lived through this time? I hope not. I wanted to fill this book with joy, sex, parties, community, gallows humor, and all that stuff, so that it would, in the words of one of my friends, not feel dismal.

EDGE: ACT UP had some real strife among its membership, and the book reflects that, but the joy is there, too.

K.M. Soehnlein:: The AIDS crisis, especially as it was lived at that moment, was a real tragedy. And yet, in a sense, there is a triumph in it because we, as a community, figured out how to take care of ourselves and get through it. We did do some remarkable things as a community. I don't think we've never really gotten credit for it, and I'm sort of mad about that. Nobody did this work for us; people figured out how to save themselves. We figured out how to use condoms and prevent transmission, or how to clean works for people who were shooting up. Lay people with no scientific experience were gathered together doing research. That's a remarkable story.

Along those lines, I also think the larger culture owes us a big fucking apology. There's never been a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for what happened during the AIDS epidemic in this country. I think one of the reasons why we're seeing a lot of the same homophobic tactics [as we saw back then] is because the larger culture never had to account for it. We have to keep telling our own story, because they haven't yet accounted for it.

K.M. Soehnlein
K.M. Soehnlein  

EDGE: This book feels like part of a body of literature around the AIDS crisis that's still relevant now. It's also filling an educational role, because our generation are in our 50s now, and we're not getting any younger.

K.M. Soehnlein:: That is why I wrote the story. What I'm seeing is a lot of nonfiction being written — [the documentary film] "How to Survive a Plague," and [Sarah Schulman's] "Let the Record Show." Peter Staley, an important activist, released a memoir ["Never Silent"] last year. There's a number of books that are coming out still. Ron Goldberg just released a book called "Boy with the Bullhorn," which is another ACT UP memoir.

There has been less fiction created around it, which is where I think I fit in. When I first started, I thought I was writing for us, the people who lived through this, so that it would be a record of that time. But at a certain point, I realized I was writing for young people who don't really know what happened.

EDGE: We are being demonized now in a way that's just crazy. When you talk to younger people, do you have a sense that they have an appreciation for how important it is to stand up and join the fight?

K.M. Soehnlein:: I think that social media makes it both easier and more difficult to do activism. Easier, because you can spread the word in so many different ways. But it's harder because of all the things that come along with that. One is disinformation, which is just a swamp that surrounds attempts to do activism. Surveillance, which has forever changed the ability to organize privately. And then there's the increased militarization of police tactics, which we did not face in 1990.

The through-line is that you have to bring bodies together in shared spaces. You cannot really do social change entirely from behind the safety of your computer. You mentioned the strife within ACT UP; the wonderful thing was that we didn't fire off anonymous attacks on social media, we got in the room together, to talk to each other. It was a different level of participation.

EDGE: Are you working on something else already?

K.M. Soehnlein:: I have a book in the works that is a continuation of the story of the characters in the family in my previous books, "The World of Normal Boys" and "Robin and Ruby."

I've also been working with [my screenwriting] partner on a project around the Continental Baths, the New York City bathhouse that was famous because not only was there sex going on, but because Bette Midler was singing there early in her career. We're in talks to make that happen.

EDGE: A film about the Continental Baths! Who would you want to see cast as Barry Manilow [who was Midler's pianist when she played the Continental Baths]?

K.M. Soehnlein:: I consulted my husband, Kevin, who is in charge of all in-house casting, and he voted for "Fire Island" star Matt Rogers. He's cute and I'm told he can sing, too.

"Army of Lovers" is available now from Bywater Books.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.