When I lost a partner to AIDS in 1995, I immediately found myself adrift in a sea of ever-changing emotions that I wasn't yet equipped to deal with. I didn't have the tools needed to properly channel and process my chaotic state, until I tried writing about my experience.
Author David G. Hallman suffered a similar loss when his partner of 30 years was diagnosed with cancer, only to die just two weeks later. He too used writing as a way to explore his emotional state, and that commonality helped us forge a friendship when we were fortunate enough to finally meet at the Rainbow Book Fair in New York. His memoir, August Farewell, details the death of his partner to cancer, and was noted by The Advocate magazine as one of the 21 Biographies or Memoirs You Should Read Now, calling his novel Searching for Gilead "an honest examination of questions about God, injustice, love, and death." It was a pleasure to speak with him recently about his life and journey to author-hood.
Kergan Edwards-Stout: Hi David. Nice to talk to you again.
David G. Hallman: Good to connect with you too, Kergan. The last time was over martinis in New York after the Rainbow Book Fair! I remember getting fortified so I'd be in good shape for the Black Party that night.
KES: Yes, the rest of us were a bit in awe that you were heading out to dance all night after being at the book fair all day!
DGH: Well, I'm not a father of two kids like you and your partner, Russ. That takes an impressive amount of energy. I bow to you in the personal stamina department.
KES: As you mention stamina, you've been through quite an emotionally exhausting journey. While you'd written other books prior, you wrote your memoir, August Farewell, after the dramatic death of your partner, Bill, from cancer. When you began writing, was it as a cathartic outlet or were you intending it to be a book?
DGH: I never intended anyone else to see it. Bill was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer in August 2009 and died two weeks later. After it was over, I started panicking that I would forget the details of those excruciating, intimate, heart-wrenching, spiritual, god-awful sixteen days that were, at times, punctured by Bill's uproarious sense of humor. So I started writing the story of those days and spontaneously began integrating vignettes from our thirty-three years together. I wrote nonstop for six weeks. But I only did it so that I could have that record to go back to and relive our time together in the years to come. Just like how we treasure photo albums.
KES: Why did you decide to publish it?
DGH: I shared it with a few close friends who in turn passed it around to others. It started circulating wider and wider. Photo copied pages in a black three-ring binder. People kept telling me that this was a wonderful love story that should be more widely available and it could be helpful to others who were dealing with grief. But it took a year of cajoling from friends before I agreed to publish it.
KES: So many people want to be in a relationship. What brought you both together, and what kept you together?
DGH: Sex. Sex. And more sex. Actually, no, that's not quite true. I had lusted after him for months but I thought that he was so good-looking he wouldn't ever notice a nerd like me. Unbeknownst to me, he had been trying to cruise me. But I was so dense, I didn't realize it. Anyway, once we finally did connect in 1976--yes, I am that old--we started living together within a week. And stayed together for thirty-three years. It was passion that brought us and kept us together--intellectual, emotional, artistic, spiritual, physical passion.
DGH: Though writing August Farewell was cathartic, I still had--still do have--issues with which I'm struggling in my head and in my heart. So I decided to try and grapple with them through a work of fiction. That's where the title comes from. I made a list of those issues and they spelled out GILEAD - God and religion in general; Injustice in the world; Love and relationships; Environmental crises; the Arts; and Death.
KES: You and I share some commonalities, in that we've both lost partners, mine to AIDS and yours to cancer, and that has lead to common themes in our writing. And yet, while both of your recent books are very personal, they're also very different.
DGH: One of the things that I admire so much about your wonderful novel Songs for the New Depression was your artistic risk-taking in telling the story in reverse chronological order. I think it worked brilliantly. Similarly for me, I wanted to push myself aggressively and with passion--there's that word again--to tackle the issues of love and loss that characterize the memoir August Farewell but this time through the demanding genre of a novel. So while Searching for Gilead is a fictional story, the underlying themes are profoundly autobiographical.
KES: While I've always viewed good writing as the connection between emotional authenticity and craftsmanship, someone recently accused me of using the death of Shane for my own aggrandizement. To me, it was essential that I try to honor him and to tell my story as well, but where is the line in telling other's stories? Do you ever feel that you've shared too much?
DGH: I worry about that all the time. I think sometimes I've skidded into an emotional exhibitionism...
KES: ...what a great phrase, "emotional exhibitionism..."
DGH: Pouring my broken heart out through the memoir and the novel, through my blogs and other recent writing, is so antithetical to the more personally circumspect person that I used to be. And Bill, though a larger-than-life personality, was quite a private person in terms of his personal life. So I do worry about how he would feel about people around the world reading our life story. But the feedback that I get from readers reinforces my gut instinct that these are important issues for us to be dealing with personally and as societies. And I guess I contribute to that social conversation through my writing.
KES: How do you think the LGBT community, as a whole, has dealt with the AIDS crisis?
DGH: As a community, we've had to deal with a lot of death and have found ways to support each other personally, socially, and politically. Now that HIV is more of a long-term chronic disability and less of an automatic death sentence, I hope we as a community can generalize from our AIDS experience to help each other as we fall ill and die of the same sort of diseases that everyone else does. Like, uh, I dunno, cancer maybe.
KES: What books have most resonated with you as a person, and why?
DGH: Gosh, to have to identify only a few titles that have really thrilled me...well of recent reads, I'd say David Rakoff's Half Empty...such a tragedy that he's just died--of cancer--at such a young age..., Christopher Bram's Eminent Outlaws, Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child, Esi Edugyan's Half-Blood Blues, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, Colm Tóibín's The Empty Family, Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader... The common denominator I suppose is that all of those have taken my breath away, the writing has been so damn good. Sometimes that's intimidating for me as an author, but generally the exhilaration of reading exquisite writing is what sticks with me.
KES: Are you working on anything new?
DGH: I've started work on a collection of inter-related short stories. But I'm taking my time. During the two years that I spent writing August Farewell and Searching for Gilead, I did very little reading. I had no time. I was always writing. Now, I find myself parched and I'm reading, reading, reading. The energy for writing will come back, I hope, but at the moment, I feel the need to slake my thirst for the good writing of others. It's where my energy is. And I'm going with my gut, passionately.