The 1980s AIDS epidemic in Chicago revisited in Rebecca Makkai’s new novel, The Great Believers | Feature | Chicago Reader

The 1980s AIDS epidemic in Chicago revisited in Rebecca Makkai’s new novel, The Great Believers 

"I would love for people who lived through this to feel some recognition, to feel some catharsis."

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click to enlarge Rebecca Makkai and Albert Williams at the Chicago Diner, May 25, 2018

Rebecca Makkai and Albert Williams at the Chicago Diner, May 25, 2018

Ryan Edmund

Rebecca Makkai is a Chicago author whose new novel, The Great Believers, is set during the AIDS crisis in Chicago in the 1980s. Albert Williams, a Chicago Reader contributor since 1985, has a long history as a gay activist and journalist. He served as editor of two Chicago LGBTQ newspapers in the 1980s, GayLife (1981-'85) and Windy City Times (1987). On the first hot day of spring of 2018, they sat down together at the Chicago Diner in the heart of Chicago's Boystown to talk about The Great Believers and Chicago's LGBTQ history, both real and imagined. The book's narrative skips back and forth in time between 1985 and 2015, focusing on two people: Yale, a gay man who works as a development officer in the Chicago art world, and Fiona, the sister of one of Yale's friends who has died of AIDS complications. Over the course of the story, Yale and Fiona wrestle with the emotional and medical impact of the AIDS crisis on the lives of themselves and their friends and loved ones, including Yale's partner, Charlie, publisher of a fictitious Chicago gay newspaper in the 1980s.

Albert Williams: Your book is coming out on June 19, just in time for Pride Week. Why did you choose to write this story? Why now?

Rebecca Makkai: I set out to write something completely different and it migrated over. The art subplot that's there now was really where the book started. And at that point, AIDS was going to be maybe 5 to 10 percent of the book. It was going to be more of a subplot. Then a couple things happened. One was I really got drawn in by the research, by the story. That was just where the gravity of the story was for me. The other thing is when I sat down and asked myself, do I want to write this, do I want to switch this proportion around, one of the reasons that my answer was yes,, was that I'm really tired of narratives where AIDS is a subplot. Someone dies romantically offstage and the plot continues and it was symbolic in some way. I don't want to malign any books that do that, because there are plenty of marvelous books where AIDS is a subplot, but I just didn't feel like I wanted to relegate it to that. I felt like if I was going to do this, I wanted to take it head on.

One of the narrative arcs in the novel is that the male protagonist, Yale—

He starts off fairly nonpolitical. He's an art guy. He's partnered with someone who's quite political, and he has friends who are quite political, but he stays out of it. People ask him to come to protests, meetings, and he generally doesn't unless he's dragged along. By the end, as his life is falling apart, he has this political awakening. He feels that he has nothing to lose and feels like he's fighting for his life.

The story begins in Chicago at a turning point in the AIDS crisis, 1985. You're not someone who has been deeply involved in the gay world, and you were only seven years old in 1985.

The timing thing is really interesting to me. I think you're the first person to ask me about the timing. Nineteen eighty-five, as you know, is a pivotal year—

It was in 1985 that [blood] testing [to identify infection with the virus that causes AIDS] became available for the first time, and there was a lot of resistance to getting tested—a lot of anxiety about reportability and anonymity. And reliability. And also just—"Do I want to know? What good would it do?" Because at that time, even if you knew, by the time you tested positive you had already been exposed for about three months at least.

Yeah. That's it. It was fascinating to me on the personal level. It was also fascinating on the plot level of here's a Rorschach test for all your characters. Who wants to get tested, who doesn't, why? Who follows through, who doesn't, why? What are the results? In a densely populated novel, those ways of sorting people out around certain issues were helpful to me as a writer, and hopefully helpful for the reader too.

By a densely populated novel, you mean there are a lot of characters. It's an ensemble piece, not a star vehicle.

Right, exactly.

That's one of the things I really liked about it. The book begins in 1985 with Yale and Charlie walking up Belden, and you think it's going to be about Yale and Charlie. Then it ends up being about something very different. You follow characters and then they don't go where you think they're going to go. And one character suddenly becomes less important and a character who is minor becomes very important. In that respect, this novel, structurally, reminds me a great deal of Angels in America, which is very much an ensemble work.

Oh, I'll take that!

You're writing a book in 2018 for people, like me, who were there, but also for younger people who do not know what that world was like.

That was very much on my mind. On the one hand, I felt some, but not all, of the weight of writing nonfiction. I'm not writing nonfiction. Someone out there needs to write the comprehensive nonfiction history of AIDS in cities that were not New York or San Francisco. Someone needs to write a book about Chicago. A full-on scholarly thing, you know what I mean? This is not that book.

One thing I promised myself is that if there's any film interest—and I don't know how much say people have, but here's my proviso—it has to be about Chicago. The last thing I want is for someone to buy this and they go "I'm gonna set it in San Francisco!" No the fuck you're not.

A lot of my research comes from newspapers, but more of it came from in-person interviews. A lot of it was just, "tell me stories," and sort of getting them talking about people they knew, things that happened, places. I didn't even know what I was looking for. I always told people going into an interview: "I have my characters, I have my plot, don't worry that I'm going to write you or your friends into this book." I just wanted those details-just the tiny, random, minor details about, you know, a certain place or a certain moment that they might not even be able to recognize later in my work.

Because it would have been reinvented.

It would have been reinvented. I think someone told me a story at one point about having ridden with a friend on a motorcycle down Lake Shore Drive, and on this guy's deathbed he said, "I think that was the happiest moment of my life, riding on that motorcycle," and it transmuted. There's no motorcycle scene in my book but-

There is a scene of a car.

There is. That's what it turned into. It turned into Yale driving down Lake Shore Drive and it's not the happiest moment of his life particularly.

A lot of my research was going on right at the time [of Donald Trump's 2016 election victory and inauguration]. These interviews are what got me through that. Talking to people about the fight, and being out there and fighting for your life, and fighting for other people's lives, and it seeming hopeless, and just channeling your rage into productive avenues. That was the thing that I kept kind of relying on in my panic and fury. There are people who've been through this shit before in very different ways who are still with us, who we can still learn from, who have perspective, who have a longitudinal view on this that I lack.

In some cases, we got to talking about things they hadn't talked about in a very long time. That was an incredible position to be in, and it's one that I hope I continue to be in as I'm out talking about this book in the world, of being so completely honored to receive these people's stories.

I'm going to put in a little list here of some of the places you [name in the book]. Chicagoans will recognize these references—some of which are still around, some of which are not: Sidetrack, the Bistro, Berlin, Little Jim's, the Inner Circle, Cheeks, Unicorn, Club Baths, Unabridged Books, Victory Gardens Theater, the "festively Swedish" Ann Sather restaurant on Belmont, and my personal favorite, the late and lamented Belden Deli. Also the Art Institute, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the gyms at Marina City and the Jane Addams Hull House, and the cruisy men's room at Marshall Field's downtown.

I'd love to claim that as a seven-year-old I was going to all these places and I just remembered them now. My parents just took me around, you know, barhopping. [Both laugh]

It seems to me that the most journalistically detailed section of the book is the part about the 1990 ACT UP protest in front of the [Cook] County Building, which was partly researched on YouTube and also draws from a 1990 Chicago Reader article about [local ACT UP leader] Danny Sotomayor.

Yes, that Reader article was fantastic. It goes through that day [of the ACT UP protest] in tremendous detail in a way that helped me make sense of what I was seeing in those YouTube videos, which were piecemeal. And there were little details—like someone sticking a "Silence = Death" sticker on the sweaty flank of a police horse—where I was like, "I have to use that." So that was heavily journalistic.

You're dealing with historical events, but it's a fiction. There are no historical characters in the book at all, except glancing references to [public figures like] Mayor Harold Washington and Cardinal Bernardin and Governor James Thompson. And Ronald Reagan. Another thing that happened in 1985 is that President Reagan spoke about AIDS for the first time publicly. In 1985! Because he had been safely reelected.

click to enlarge The ACT UP candlelight vigil outside Cook County Hospital, April 23, 1990 - CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
  • The ACT UP candlelight vigil outside Cook County Hospital, April 23, 1990
  • Chicago Sun-Times

That was a long decision process for me about whether to include actual names of activists, actual names of newspapers. It ultimately came down to not wanting to write about real people as much, [though] in certain cases I think people are going to draw comparisons. I really needed to, for instance, reinvent the gay press scene so that I wasn't talking about an editor of Windy City Times, because that was an actual person. I can't just make up his life. But if I'm going to reinvent that, I need to reinvent everything. There were certain areas where I was like, "I need to get it exactly right. I don't want to make up bars, I want to use real bars. I don't want to mess up the ACT UP demo." But this was a whole sphere where I was like, "I need to just completely reinvent it." For several reasons, a lot of them having to do with what I was free to do with these characters, the kind of people I needed them to be for the plot, because ultimately, like I said, I'm not writing nonfiction.

Or even Ragtime, a novel in which fictional and real-life figures interact.

No, right, exactly. I'm writing a novel where I want to get things either right if I'm telling the truth or plausible where I'm not.

What is the takeaway you want to give to people who lived through this [period], and then to people your own age and younger?

As much as I know I can never perfectly capture this world, I would love for people who lived through this to feel some recognition, to feel some catharsis. To have a book that they could give to someone else and say, "Hey, listen, if you want to know more about this, this is what I lived through." It bothers me that this Chicago story has not been told nationally. When there are things I've left out, where there are things that people feel don't represent exactly what their experience was, I would very much hope that they would take that as a starting point for telling their own story.

There were several people who I met with who afterward kept e-mailing me with more and more stuff that they would remember. In at least one case, someone e-mailed me and the book had already gone off to press. This guy has incredible stories and was on the receiving end of so much stress and grief and pain for so long. And I was like, "Let's have coffee sometime, but I can't use anything more." He wrote back and he was like, "You know, gosh, maybe this is a sign that I should write this down myself." And it absolutely is.

One of the important locations in the novel that is very authentic and detailed is Illinois Masonic hospital. It had an AIDS unit—Unit 371—which was really a home away from home for a lot of people, because you would go and you would visit your friends, and then you would see someone else you didn't know was sick. Or, as you have in the novel, a man visiting his ex-lover realizing that this is probably where he will end up dying himself. And the heroic people who worked in that place. It was so powerful.

I did my research in layers. So I'd write a bit, research, write a bit, research. In my initial outlines, my initial thinking, I was assuming that most people's hospital experience was going to be fairly uncaring, negative, and those [cases] certainly were out there. I've made sure they were represented in a couple of different ways in the book. But I had no idea there was a place this wonderful. The picture I have of it in my mind is extraordinary and accurate, as far as I know, in terms of the comforts that were there. The restaurants that would donate food on certain nights of the week. The people that would come in to cut hair, the massage, the fish tank in the lobby. Two different people drew me floor maps [of the AIDS unit]. Before I'd gone up there, they drew me floor plans and they were wildly contradictory of each other, which I found really funny. I was showing the one guy what the other person had drawn and he was like, "No!"

Then I went up there. It's still there. It's closed, of course. It is not really a unit anymore. The rooms are still there. They're being used for meeting rooms and nap rooms for on-call doctors and storage. The lights are, at least in my experience, always kind of half dimmed. I spent a lot of time. First when I went, I just looked around and took photos, took videos, was carrying my two contradictory hand-drawn maps in hand. Things had changed too. Walls have shifted over time. For a while there was a smoking lounge. Then they tore down a wall to make the art therapy room. So I'm kind of piecing it all together. And in specific, certain rooms where I'd heard of certain things happening, trying to think, "Oh, this must have been the room." Then I went back a couple of more times, and at a certain point there was a bench there in the hallway, and I just sat there with my laptop and I was writing. I sort of sketched out the scenes that would happen at Masonic but I was really writing those scenes there. Particularly some of the last scenes of the novel, without talking too intensely about that. There was one room that was ajar. I think it would have been a patient room and it actually would have been one of the single rooms that would have been used for hospice in the back of the unit, which I knew from conversations. It was cracked and there was—I just thought this is the room, this the room where Yale— Never mind, I'm not going to say that—this is the room I'm gonna use at a crucial point in this book. It's funny because—I felt in so many ways as I was writing this like Danny Sotomayor was fucking haunting me. Things would happen and I was like, what? Again, he was ubiquitous, but there were certain weird things, and one of them was this room. I later told a friend who was also a friend of [Danny's] about this room and he said, "Well, which room was it?" and I drew it on a map and he was like, "Yeah, that was where Danny died." It was just the room that I was, you know, drawn to, that was magically ajar, that I saw it and was like, "This is it." So.

But Danny is not actually depicted in this book.

No. Well, there's a guy with a macaw on his shoulder. The absolute Easter egg for anyone who really lived through this is Yale looks past a guy with a green-and-blue macaw on his shoulder in the park. I'm gonna say that's Danny. That's something that, you know, like 12 people are going to get that. But it's there. I wanted to have it in there. It meant something to me.

It's so terrifying [for an author] to have any book go out and this one, for so many reasons, is just extra terrifying. You're dealing with some real stories and, you know, fiction is always lying and trying to get away with it. It always feels like playing that old game show, where they're like: "Would the real 'whoever' please stand up?"

To Tell the Truth?

Thank you, that's what it was, To Tell the Truth. You always feel like one of those contestants. They're asking you things like, "So, you're the Boy Scout commissioner of the USA, tell us this," and [the contestants are] all trying desperately to sound like the Boy Scout commissioner of the USA. Whenever you write fiction, you end up doing that. I'm always trying to talk to my grad students [at Northwestern] about this, about how much research is involved in writing good fiction. You can't just gloss over it.

I asked you before about what you wanted people to take away—

I answered the part about what do you want people to take from it who were there, but the part I didn't answer was the part about people who weren't there and don't know. I do want people to realize this stuff. I want this to be an emotional education if not also a political education and a historical education. I've been alarmed at the number of people, very sweet, well-meaning people who I've spoken to as I've been writing this book and they ask me what I'm writing about and—I'm talking about, you know, maybe upper-middle-class women, typical book buyers, honestly. I talk about that and they say, "Oh, I remember that time." Like, it's a thing they have not thought about in 20 years. Talking about AIDS as if it's this thing of the past, which it isn't. I'm realizing how little so many people know. So I hope very much that the people who weren't paying attention at the time but were around that this is a start of a glimpse of what they missed. I hope this is the beginning— If my book is the first thing about the AIDS crisis that someone has read, I hope to God it's not the last thing and that they're running out to buy more. Or someone else in their book club says, "Hey, there's this other book we should also read."

Also, there's another category out there of the people who maybe would never read anything like this. I would love for some really conservative readers to happen upon this by mistake because their book club makes them read it.

The Great Believers is a great title.

Yeah, it'll trick everyone, right? They'll think it's religious, it's a Bible study guide! Oh, my God. I would love it!

This book does get political. It's not preachy, it's just telling what actually happened. But the parallels between the conspiracy theorists freaking out about Obamacare and death panels and whatever— We always had death panels. And they condemned tens of thousands of men to die. And the fuckery of the insurance companies—sorry, use some other word, Chicago Reader—that is absolutely still going on. And the unaffordability of the medication, and the way people can be murdered slowly by institutions and by government, is something that is absolutely relevant and is absolutely still happening. And if this is a book that draws certain people in—maybe let's just say they aren't very political and they're drawn to a character-driven novel that their friend liked—if this introduces them to some of those concepts and makes them think more deeply, more personally about some of those concepts, I will be thrilled.

I also hope people just enjoy it. But if I just wanted people to enjoy a book, I would have written a different book.   v

Danny Sotomayor was an AIDS activist and a political cartoonist in the gay community in the 1980s and early ’90s, until he died of AIDS in 1992 at age 33. A prominent and controversial figure, he was a subject of a feature story in the Reader: "The Angriest Queer,” by writer Joseph Crump, published August 16, 1990.


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