Q&A with Tom Spanbauer

Written by J.T. Leroy on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

The Man
Who Fell in Love with the Moon
(1991) is one of those cult books you hear
about again and again until you finally read it for yourself, fall in love with
it and become one of the legions bugging everyone they know to read it. Fans
of that book had to wait 10 long years for Tom Spanbauer’s latest release,
In the City of Shy Hunters (Grove Press, 560 pages, $26). A novel of
New York City during the AIDS outbreak of the 1980s, it’s alternately heartbreaking,
humorous, revelatory and inspiring. It’s a rare book that captures a time
in history and makes it a very moving present.

The Man
Who Fell in Love with the Moon
came out in 1991. After that book did you
plan to write another one?

Well, actually
I had started In the City of Shy Hunters before Man Who Fell in Love
with the Moon
and I got so, I was so enraged, it was so political, it just,
it got so polemical I just quit writing and left it and started The Man Who
Fell in Love with the Moon
. Then I went back to In the City of Shy Hunters
in, it was like 1992, something like that. So I’ve been writing it for,
oh gosh, nine years at least.

Did you ever
think it would take so long?

No I didn’t.
Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon took four and a half years. I thought
it would be like Moon. I knew it was something big, but I didn’t
know it was as big as it is. And of course I got sick right in the middle of

Can you explain
what you mean by sick?

Yeah, I got
AIDS. In 1996, December 1st, I went into the hospital and it took me seven months
to get back on my feet again.

Did you know
that you had AIDS before that, like were you HIV-positive?

Yeah, I knew
I was HIV-positive. I was living in a world of denial pretty much.

Were you taking
care of yourself?

Well yeah,
I was taking some Oriental pills and doing some yoga. I thought I was taking
care of myself, but now that I look back on it, I’m taking care of myself
now, I wasn’t taking care of myself then. I was still drinking
a pot of coffee in the morning and wasn’t really eating like I should,
and I got pretty damn sick. I remember the morning that I went out–I had
a little writing shed and I went out one morning and turned the computer on
and got into the file and wrote one sentence, I think it was the beginning of
chapter 29 and it’s, "I dialed 911 for Rose." And that’s
the only sentence I could write. I had to go back inside. So it’s been
a long, long, tough road.

Were you ever
afraid that you wouldn’t finish it?

Yes, absolutely.
It’s not necessarily about AIDS, it’s kinda like, you know, um, Cezanne’s
bowl of fruit is about a bowl of fruit, you know? It’s during the time
when AIDS hits New York City really hard between ’83 and ’88, and
it’s just about these people who live and love and fight and fuck and all
this and then–boom–all of a sudden this hits. The big topic was AIDS,
and here I had it, you know? There were a couple of places characters had to
die. I felt in a way that I was a survivor of this epidemic and I owed it to
a lot of people to tell the story of what it was like, and so I did that.

The effect
of AIDS has changed because of all the new drugs. How did that affect you while
you were writing?

Those drugs
kept me alive.

But the people’s

The book ends
in 1988. So they didn’t have the benefit of any of the drugs.

So it’s
kind of ironic that the drugs kept you alive so you could write it, but your

Yeah, a couple
of them, well, it’s almost a Greek tragedy, you know?

I think a lot
of people forget what it was like. I know a lot of people my age who really
just think that getting AIDS is sort of like getting hepatitis. Especially with
the ads where it shows people climbing mountains–you pop a few pills and
then you’re okay.

Yeah, well,
that’s certainly not the case with me. I had 17 T-cells and I just about
died and I’m still dealing with–it’s almost another incarnation,
my life is totally different. Of course, I’m aging as well, but I just
don’t have the energy I used to have. And the depression that’s come
along with it, that’s really knocking me out too. When the book was finished,
now what on earth do I do? I kept telling myself, well, you can just finish
the book, Tom, and you can die. And then I finished the book and I wasn’t
dead. And a year later I’m still alive, and I don’t know what to do
with myself, really. I don’t have the energy to start another book yet.

I think we
would be better off if we were rock stars.

I would rather
be a rock star. Really, I’d love to get up in front of a bunch of people
and grab that microphone and sing my heart out. I would love to do that.

Well, maybe
we should start a band, like Stephen King and Amy Tan.

Right. What
do we call ourselves?

They call them
the Rock Bottom Remainders or something. I guess we can call ourselves the Sock
Drawer Remainders.

The Old Jockstraps or something like that.

I’ll put
on a dress and sing. You can put on a dress and sing.

Okay, sure,
I like to put on dresses.

So have you
started thinking about another book?

Actually I
have. I’ve got a couple pages into it and it’ll be quite different
and I think this huge tome and creation of an entire new language and universe
and, you know, intense work on characterization… I may have burned that muscle
out altogether. But I walk around with all these thoughts, and there are a lot
of really interesting things that have happened to me. Like my time in Africa
and how I ran into a zebra one night and almost got bit by a green mamba–

a green mamba?

It’s a
snake. You can live for half a minute when it bites you.

How did you
almost get bit by one?

I went to this
place to set up my tent. The place is called Kiboko, which means hippopotamus.
There was a local shower, so I put my towel around me and walked to the local
shower and took a shower and put my towel back on, walked back. I’d left
my tent open, and a green mamba had crawled in and wrapped itself around my
duffel bag.

Oh my God.

And when I
reached for my shorts there’s this snake. It struck and it missed me, and
I went screaming out–this naked man went screaming out of his tent, and
then the whole village came over and helped me. And the snake finally realized
the only way out was where we were and it just came shooting at us, and we all
beat the shit out of each other trying to get out of the way of the snake.

How did The
Man Who Fell in Love
do when it came out? How was it received?

It got good
reviews. It sold moderately, but the thing about that book is that it’s
10 years later and it’s still selling moderately. It’s still on the
shelf and people still are buying it, and that’s the remarkable thing.

Anyone I turn
on to the book feels like they’ve discovered this incredible gem. I think
Sarah owes a lot of inspiration to The Man Who Fell in Love with the

It’s interesting
what you think of Shy Hunters, because the character is also an innocent.
But unlike Shed [from The Man], who really didn’t have lots of internal
psychology that was on the page, this narrator is quite neurotic. Probably a
third of the book is about his past and how he became so broken. He stutters,
he’s impotent and he is just full of grief. Essentially the story is he
has moved to New York City to find his childhood comrade and lover, who he knows
has moved to New York. The narrator has betrayed him, but you don’t know
what he’s done really. So the narrator has moved to New York to try and
find his old buddy, his old lover, Charlie Two Moons, Native American guy, and
that’s the story. He just goes to New York to find this guy and he just
plans to do it. He has a couple of leads, he knows that he got a poetry scholarship
at Columbia University and so he moves there, he just goes there to ask forgiveness
of his old friend, and he eventually does find his friend or his friend finds
him, but not like you’d think it’s gonna be and so it’s a surprise.
Shed is an innocent and can remain an innocent throughout the story, but as
soon as my innocent in Shy Hunters goes to New York City, he’s got
to learn real fast to cover his ass. And so it’s an ambivalent story about
how he maintains his innocence but still gets that New York fuck-you down so
he can live, you know?

Shy Hunters,
even with all the death in it, is really a story of redemption, of hope.

There is hope
in it. I really had to work hard to find the hope, and I did, I found it. I
wouldn’t want the book relegated to an AIDS novel. Because it’s about
these wonderful people who make a family, there’s a lot of humanity and
a lot of hope in it. I guess that’s what I want to say.