October 17, 2022
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
K.M. Soehnlein's novel Army of Lovers is a captivating and poignant coming-of-age story that also incisively captures the ACT UP movement of the late '80s, early '90s New York City.
Andrea Lawlor wrote of the book:
"Army of Lovers is astonishing, devastating, a small time machine made of words, a survivor’s novel, a queer coming-of-age story—collective by necessity and also deeply particular—one perfect tear-stained facet of the kaleidoscopic scene that was ACT UP/Queer Nation in early ’90s New York. I was there, I knew these people, and I wanted it never to end."
Army of Lovers is my fourth novel, but it’s the first that covers a substantial period of time. My previous book, Robin and Ruby, took place over one weekend; this one spans five years, 1987-1992, the years I lived in New York City and got involved in AIDS activism with the direct-action protest group ACT UP.
Like my protagonist, Paul, I was just out of college when I moved to New York with my boyfriend, and we quickly immersed ourselves in the queer community—politically, artistically, and socially. ACT UP was a thrilling environment for a young idealist; it was full of brave, intelligent, belligerent personalities; it undertook necessary actions that were often seen as controversial; it was driven by the urgency to save the lives of People With AIDS, so callously and shockingly disregarded by the government.
Writing Army of Lovers was a long haul. It was technically challenging, stretching me as a writer, and it was undeniably emotional, too, as I revisited a time in my life full of terrible loss, deep love, and undeniable joy.
If you want to understand what ACT UP was all about, start here, with a ten-minute speech delivered by Vito Russo, the most eloquent voice of the AIDS activist movement (and the author of The Celluloid Closet, the landmark study of queer representation in Hollywood, later made into a documentary film). At a protest in Albany, New York, Vito delivered a speech sharp as a laser and louder than bombs. It wasn’t just a virus threatening his survival, he told those of us in the crowd, but an entire system that had ignored the epidemic for years: “Living with AIDS is like living through a war which is happening only for those people who happen to be in the trenches. Every time a shell explodes, you look around and you discover that you've lost more of your friends, but nobody else notices. It isn't happening to them.”
“Everybody Everybody,” by Black Box, vocals by Martha Wash
In earlier drafts, I called this manuscript Everybody Everybody, after this exuberant dancefloor bop, the song I heard in my head when I thought about the early-’90s in downtown Manhattan. The novel is full of bodies—the mass demonstrations organized by ACT UP against institutions like the FDA and the Catholic Church; the community meetings where those acts of civil disobedience were argued over and planned out; the crammed house-parties, bars, and club where the characters let loose. Redrafted over many years and retitled, the novel is still infused with the uplift of Martha Wash’s soaring vocals. In one scene, a character corrects a friend who has misquoted a lyric from the song: “Sad and free...not ‘set me free.’ She’s been set free. She just isn’t happy yet.” For me, “sad and free” captured the polarities of a liberated queer community in the midst of a tidal wave of loss.
“Stairway to Heaven,” by Led Zeppelin
I started writing this book to capture history, but my fiction-writer’s brain quickly transformed memories into short stories and ultimately chapters of something longer. One of the earliest scenes I wrote was a memory of a birthday party in 1988, at which the birthday boy put “Stairway to Heaven” on a turntable, insisting it be played over and over until we were all under its acid rock spell. Dressed in drag, he paraded through the room, blew out the candles on his cake, and threw it out the window. Different people who were there remember that night differently: Was it true that he asked everyone at the party to bring a cake? Didn’t he throw all the cakes out the window? The facts are fuzzy, but the emotions of that moment remain, and my fictional re-creation of it now feels as real as whatever actually happened.
“Talkin’ Bout a Revolution,” by Tracy Chapman
Every protest movement needs its signature music. To my mind the unacknowledged soundtrack of AIDS activism was female-fronted folk-rock of the late ’80s. I bought my first CD player around this time, and my collection quickly included kd lang, Indigo Girls, Two Nice Girls, Phranc, Michelle Shocked, and the biggest hitmaker of them all, Tracy Chapman. “It sounds like a whisper,” Tracy sings in “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution,” asking the listener to “hold on,” because for now, revolution was still talk, but the real thing was coming. In ACT UP, we used non-violent civil disobedience to force the U.S. government into action, and many of us believed we were seeding the ground for massive changes in the health care system. The years since have been a slow-moving evolution, as each step forward meets with backlash. We used to chant, “Health care is a right.” But health care in the U.S. is still a privilege. We’re still talking about that revolution.
“Howl,” a poem by Allen Ginsberg
[Recorded as “Howl—Live, 1/29/1959”]
In Army of Lovers, Paul starts out sheltered and finds his life turned inside out by activism. He’s schooled by older men and women he meets, participants in previous progressive movements (civil rights, feminism, gay liberation), and he eventually finds his artistic voice as a budding writer through the lineage of queer literature. Like Paul, I sat around with friends passing Ginsberg’s “Howl” from hand to hand, taking turns reading its incendiary lines out loud. I remember hunting record stores for a (pre-digital) recording of Ginsberg reciting his poem, though in fact the poet himself might be found on the streets of the East Village, where he lived in a rent-controlled apartment, fighting off a landlord trying to evict him. Ginsberg’s visionary work floats through the novel—Paul reads the poem, ponders its lines, and ultimately absorbs its spirit—all the way to the very last sentence.
“Like a Prayer,” Madonna
It can be hard to convey just how stigmatized people with AIDS were, and how without allies the queer community was in its fight for justice. There weren’t many celebrities hopping aboard the cause; stars like Bette Midler and Donna Summer put distance between themselves and the gay male audiences who’d been essential to their early success. But then there was Madonna, on the way to being one of the biggest stars of all time, who used her international platform to speak out AIDS and gay rights pretty much all the time, anywhere she could. When her 1989 video for “Like a Prayer” earned a condemnation from the Vatican, it felt like further proof that she was on our side, fighting the same oppressors. Today, behaving erratically on social media and wealthy beyond counting, Madonna doesn’t particularly look like a hero. But once upon a time she was, and for many of us, she’ll always be.
"Love Is a Stranger," Eurythmics
Sometimes I put a song in a novel just because I really, really love it. This is one of them. Have you listened to “Love Is a Stranger” lately, volume up so you can sing along (even though you’ll never match the stylistic range of Annie Lennox)? I recommend it. Paul starts off with one boyfriend, Derek, and midway through the novel gets involved with another, Zack, a painter. One morning in his Brooklyn apartment, Zack hits play on a mixtape in his boombox and then starts to work on a canvas. Paul, watching and listening, pulls out his notebook and writes a poem, perhaps the first he’s ever written. I needed a song for that mixtape. This scene takes place in 1990. The song is from 1982. I imagined that Zack, unlike Paul, hasn’t upgraded from cassette to CD and is still listening to “older” music. Annie sings that love is “an obsession” and a “dangerous drug,” which is sort of what’s going on between these characters: Love is a stranger in an open car to tempt you in and drive you far away.
“The Bay,” from the Vertigo soundtrack by Bernard Herrmann
The novel veers westward after Zack decides to relocate to San Francisco. Before he leaves, he and Paul watch Vertigo, Hitchcock’s obsessive, slow-burn thriller; later, Zack sends a homemade postcard to Paul with a cartoon drawing of Kim Novak’s character, Madeline, bobbing in the San Francisco Bay. He plays it for gallows humor—in the movie, the distraught Madeline jumps into the water to drown herself—but to Paul it starts to hint at Zack’s troubled state of mind. This is one of a several places in the book where movies echo what’s going on for the characters. Zack’s trip to San Francisco is an attempt to remake himself, and Vertigo is built around the mystery of identity. The movie’s Bernard Herrmann soundtrack is less well-known than the one he did for Psycho, but it’s just as psychological, and I loved painting foggy San Francisco with its haunted strings.
“We’ve Only Just Begun,” by The Carpenters
This sentimental song gets played toward the end of the novel at a party thrown by Dale and Timmy, boyfriends celebrating their third anniversary with a kitschy Junior Prom-theme. They live in a commercial loft that acts as an unofficial gathering spot for their circle of friends, who all gamely show up in costume. Today, kids go to the prom with whomever they choose, but when the characters in this novel were in high school, heteronormative coupling along the gender binary was the rule. This queer Junior Prom becomes a reclamation of a formative teenage ritual, and it ends with everyone encircling the happy couple and slow dancing to Karen Carpenter’s flawless voice. It broke my heart a little to weave lyrics like “So much of life ahead,” into a setting in which a long life was not a given. In this context, “We’ve Only Just Begun” isn’t really sentimental or kitschy. It’s a necessary reprieve and a sincere expression of hope in the dark.
K.M. Soehnlein (he/him) is the author of three novels, including his Lambda Literary Award-winning debut, The World of Normal Boys. He is the recipient of the Henfield Prize in short fiction and a Rainin Filmmaking Grant for screenwriting. His journalism has appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, Out Magazine, The Village Voice, and San Francisco Magazine, and his personal essays have appeared in numerous literary collections. Karl received an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University and currently teaches at the University of San Francisco MFA in Writing Program. He previously served on the Board of Trustees of the Djerassi Resident Artists Program. He lives in San Francisco with his husband.